• Vie. May 17th, 2024

-> Noticias de futbol internacional

Should Darwin Nunez be part of Liverpool’s future?


Sometimes it clicks. And in those moments when it clicks for Darwin Nunez, you could be excused for thinking you are watching the best centre-forward in the world, a wrecking-ball of a No 9 whose power and aggression are sometimes accompanied by an unexpected finesse.

Take a look at the two goals he scored away to Newcastle United in the opening weeks of this season, shortly after being sent on with a point to prove; that sumptuous volley on the half-turn, as the ball came over his shoulder, against West Ham United at Anfield; that ferocious strike soon after coming on at Bournemouth in the Carabao Cup in November; that outrageous, impudent chipped finish at Brentford to leave Mark Flekken clutching at thin air; well-taken goals for Uruguay against Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia.

Advertisement

But it never clicks for long. Nunez is the definition of a player who blows hot and cold — not just from one month or one week to the next, but often from one minute to the next. Even within those hotter streaks, there are periods when the 24-year-old looks out of place in a team with serious ambitions. There are so many rough edges to his game.

As has been discussed at length, there are numerous factors behind the collapse of Liverpool’s Premier League title challenge. It would be fair to describe the struggles of Nunez, whose best form this season came when others in the team were playing well, as a symptom of those ills rather than an overriding cause.

But as Liverpool begin to look beyond Jurgen Klopp’s farewell tour and to conceive of a new vision led by Michael Edwards, Richard Hughes and, they hope, Feyenoord coach Arne Slot, there is a serious discussion to be had over Nunez. After two seasons, has the Uruguayan done enough to be one of the cornerstones of Liverpool’s brave new world?


Nunez has scored 33 goals in 92 games for Liverpool. More than a third of those appearances have been from the bench. In the Premier League, it is 20 goals from 61 appearances: 15 goals in 41 starts, five in 20 from the bench. Add 11 assists to the equation and it looks healthy: a goal or assist every 77 minutes in the Premier League this season, a clear improvement on one every 141 minutes in his debut campaign.

The basic numbers look solid enough. Video showreels of his best bits look spectacular. But the concern is the other parts: the reliability of his finishing and build-up play, the sporadic nature of his performances, his curious relationship with the offside rule and the way his output and playing time has faded significantly from March onwards in three of the past four seasons.

Advertisement

Opta’s expected-goals (xG) metric shows a player who, in his four seasons playing top-flight football in Europe, has struggled to convert chances on a consistent basis.

In all but one of those campaigns (his second at Benfica), his goal return has fallen some distance short of his xG. Liverpool signed him on the back of that 2021-22 season in which he scored 26 league goals for Benfica from an xG of 18.4. That is an enormously impressive return, but it remains a distinct outlier in his career. Over his two seasons in the Premier League, he has scored 20 goals from an xG of 27.8.

If anything, the nature of Nunez’s goals — many of them powerful, audacious efforts from low-quality chances — skews the data. In that 14-minute cameo at Newcastle, he scored twice from two chances with a combined xG of 0.4. By contrast, across the home games against Newcastle and Chelsea, he took a total of 18 shots, with a combined xG of 3.0, but didn’t score.

This season, Nunez has taken more shots (104) than any other player in the Premier League despite spending more than one-third of the time on the sidelines. In terms of shots per 90 minutes, his total of 4.73 is by far the highest among players who have made more than a handful of appearances. Next come Fulham’s Rodrigo Muniz (4.44), Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (4.0), Tottenham Hotspur’s Richarlison (3.80) and then his Liverpool team-mate, Mohamed Salah (3.72).

Using Opta’s data, Nunez has missed no fewer than 46 “big chances” in the Premier League since joining Liverpool in the summer of 2022. Haaland has missed more (58), though he has scored almost three times as many goals (56) as Nunez over the same period.

Nunez’s shot map for this season captures the problem. The red dots show the goals, the black dots show the unsuccessful shots and the bigger the dot, the better the chance according to Opta’s xG model. The two most striking things about Nunez’s shot map are the number of large black dots close to the opposition goal and the number of tiny black dots more than 30 yards out. From 23 attempts from outside the penalty area, Nunez has scored twice — and one of those was that goal against Sheffield United.

The problem is that so many of his close-range finishes seem so untidy, so rushed and so lacking in composure. In isolation, the two he has hit straight at goalkeepers from similar positions in recent Liverpool defeats — denied by Crystal Palace’s Dean Henderson and Everton’s Jordan Pickford — would be easily forgotten.

Advertisement

When they are just the latest entries in a compendium of glaring misses, they are harder to excuse.

And when several of those “big chances” have been missed when his team are trailing in games — notably against Palace and Everton and away to Luton Town in November — it not only magnifies the incident but raises questions about temperament. The best centre-forwards have an ice-cold composure in front of goal. The majority of the time, Nunez seems like the opposite of that.


Former Liverpool forward Michael Owen received plenty of flak in February when he suggested on X that Nunez’s wonderfully taken goal at Brentford underlined a flaw as well as a strength.

It was an “incredible” finish, Owen said, but he added, “To even consider that finish is madness. (In terms of the probability of scoring) it’s a one-in-10, two-in-10 finish at best. Learning to slot, dink or go around the GK (goalkeeper) is a far more productive way to score and will increase his chances to four or five in 10, thus massively increasing his end return.”

Spool forward to Wednesday night and Owen was indignant after seeing Nunez leather the ball straight at Pickford from close range in the first half of the Merseyside derby. “I cannot defend that in any way, shape or form,” the one-time Ballon d’Or winner said on the Premier League’s global television feed. “He can finish sometimes, but to go from one extreme to another and be seven yards out and blast it straight down the middle is just not good enough. It’s a bit of play that you just don’t see world-class players doing.

“I cannot get my head around how you can finish like that one night (against Brentford) and be so calm and calculated and confident in one of the most difficult finishes known to man — it was impossible, virtually, what he did — and then get in a simple situation here (against Everton) and just put your head down and blast it as hard as you can. I cannot fathom it. It’s that extreme and then it’s this extreme.”

In Owen’s view, it comes down to “fundamental, basic things in front of goal”. But sometimes it’s about fundamental, basic things away from the goal. Such as staying onside.

Advertisement

Nunez has been caught offside 30 times in the Premier League this season, again more than any other player. To put it another way, he has been flagged offside once every 66 minutes he has spent on the pitch. To put that in context, he has been caught offside more often than Manchester City (once every 92 minutes).

Haaland has been caught offside just twice all season. That’s once every 1,091 minutes. And while there are obvious differences in style — both between the players and between the teams — one of the biggest differences is their ability to read the play before running onto a through ball. Both are quick enough not to need to set off early. Haaland times his runs brilliantly. Nunez? Not so much.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

How Not To Score: Alan Shearer’s guide to missing chances

This is what is meant by “rough edges”. It applies to build-up play too. Some feel that Nunez’s all-round threat outweighs any concerns over his finishing, such is the fear he sometimes spreads through opposition defences — the “agent of chaos” and all that. But it was not always a convincing case earlier in the season — and it certainly hasn’t been the case lately.

There are times when Nunez gets it right, as seen with the goals he laid on for Curtis Jones and Cody Gakpo in the space of three minutes in the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Fulham in January and some of the goals he laid on for Salah earlier in the season. But when it comes to link-up play, there are too many poor decisions, heavy touches and too many shots when a more patient, subtle approach is needed.

Klopp was happy to accept a relatively low goal return from Roberto Firmino because the Brazilian helped make Liverpool such a cohesive unit with and without the ball, bringing the best out of Salah, Sadio Mane and later Diogo Jota.

In many ways, Nunez is the anti-Firmino. He is an individualist rather than a team player. He is energetic and all-action but at times ineffective in the counter-press. He is trigger-happy but lacks accuracy. His shortcomings are easy to gloss over when he is scoring goals. When he is firing blanks, as has been the case lately, that becomes harder.


Jamie Carragher didn’t mince his words in the Sky Sports studio after Liverpool’s 2-0 defeat by Everton in the Merseyside derby on Wednesday night. Having said there is a question to be asked about Mohamed Salah’s future — 32 this summer, with only a year left on his contract and a new manager arriving — the former Liverpool defender added that he is “at the stage now where I don’t think there’s a question to be asked” about Nunez. And he didn’t mean it in a positive way.

Advertisement

Carragher spoke about having spent the past two years “wanting him to do well because there’s so much you like — because he gives everything, he runs, he causes trouble, he gets the odd goal, gets assists”.

“But we’ve all been in squads,” he said, “where someone comes in and for the first year we say, ‘OK, he’s getting up to speed, he’s improving, he’s getting better.’ And it looked like he was at the start of the season, but it has just ground to a halt.

“And you’re looking at it now and after two years, I don’t think there’s going to be a massive improvement in him. I think what we’ve seen in the two years, that’s what he is. He can cause trouble, he can be erratic in his finishing. It’s not going to improve. I don’t think it’s going to be enough to win the biggest trophies, so I think there’s a big decision to be made on him this summer.”

It won’t be Klopp’s decision. But the outgoing manager has not seemed thrilled by his centre-forward lately. In three games where Liverpool desperately needed a goal — 2-1 down at Manchester United, 2-0 down at home to Atalanta, 1-0 down at home to Crystal Palace — Nunez was substituted between the 59th and 68 minutes. In the next two games, away to Atalanta and Fulham, he appeared only briefly from the bench.

Out of sorts at Everton on Wednesday night, particularly after his first-half miss, he surely would not have lasted the 90 minutes had either Jota or Cody Gakpo been available.


Is two years long enough to make a judgment on a player, as Carragher suggests? Not always. If it was, a 28-year-old Didier Drogba might have been ushered out of Chelsea in the summer of 2006 rather than staying on long enough to score 33 goals in year three and going on to become one of the most feted players in the club’s history.

Drogba was that kind of player. Like Nunez, he could be a fearsome opponent, but there were also periods — even after his breakthrough — where team-mates and successive managers appeared ready to give up on him.

Advertisement

Interestingly, two of Nunez’s former Uruguay team-mates could relate similar experiences in Europe. Luis Suarez performed wonderfully for Ajax but was still seen as an inconsistent, erratic player, just short of elite level, until towards the end of his second season at Liverpool, aged 26. Diego Forlan was 25 when he left Manchester United to little fanfare after scoring 10 Premier League goals in two and a half seasons, but he flourished in La Liga with Villarreal and Atletico Madrid.

Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins is having the season of his life at 28. Bournemouth’s Dominic Solanke likewise at 26. “Everyone’s path is different,” Solanke told The Athletic recently, reflecting on his own experiences.

But at the moment it is hard to take issue with Carragher’s suggestion that Nunez’s inconsistency “is what he is”. It is telling that the forward lost his starting place in the final weeks of last season and started just one of Liverpool’s first five games Premier League this term. Klopp has consistently backed him and sung his praises without ever appearing entirely convinced by him.


Jurgen Klopp’s faith in Darwin Nunez has wavered of late (James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

The big question now is whether Nunez survives a summer of sweeping changes at Anfield: the return of Edwards, the arrival of a new sporting director, a new head coach and, without question, some difficult decisions about how to freshen up a squad that surpassed expectations for much of the season but has been found wanting when the stakes are highest.

If Liverpool need to sell players to raise funds this summer, then Nunez is an obvious candidate. There will always be a market for centre-forwards who are proven, to whatever degree, at Champions League and Premier League level.

The flip side of that is, for Edwards, Hughes et al, there are not too many obvious, affordable top-class centre-forwards out there who would come with a guarantee of offering more. Nunez’s experiences, as well as the difficulties endured by Nicolas Jackson at Chelsea and Rasmus Hojlund, underline the risks involved in simply going for Europe’s latest flavour of the month.

Perhaps Klopp and his staff have missed a trick with Nunez, whether technical or psychological. Perhaps another coach, like Slot, will find a way to get more out of him. And perhaps given the lack of affordable top-class centre-forwards on the market, the logical thing would be to wait and see what happens with Nunez under a new coach with a fresh approach. Nunez will turn 25 this summer, his English is slowly improving and he might benefit from a new start on Merseyside.

Advertisement

But there is no guarantee of that. If anything, the past two seasons have heightened the feeling that Nunez’s inconsistency is something he will not just grow out of. It seems to reflect something in his nature. Sometimes it clicks, but it rarely stays clicked for long.

(Top image: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)