Watching Darwin Núñez Firing in the Flesh
"Núñez!" "Núñez!" "Núñez!" "Núñez!" "Núñez!"
The narrative around Darwin Núñez has been feverishly insane, ever since one bad preseason game, or perhaps even a single poor shot; even though he followed it with four goals in the second half in the next game (against a top German team), when only on as a half-time sub.
I've now been to two home games this season (vs Crystal Palace, and last night vs West Ham), and Darwin Núñez has started both, before departing in the second half for very different reasons.
I thought he was lively against Palace; dangerous, but low on belief, and then high on forehead action.
Still, I thought that, long term, his forehead would be quite handy, as I've analysed in depth on these pages (especially in terms of how he can score goals from aerial duels, whereas the likes of Sadio Mané and Diogo Jota previously scored headers when unmarked, due to inch-perfect delivery; Núñez can out-jump tall defenders, and the number of headed goals he scores is rising all the time, including a similar one for Uruguay recently, from a Luis Suarez cross; Suarez having been raving about Núñez for a few years now, and he surely knows a player when he sees one).
What Núñez is not is Erling Haaland. Núñez earns around £140,000 a week, whereas Haaland, in addition to the £40m signing-on fee to his agent and family, is reported to earn a mind-blowing £900,000 a week. In terms of overall cost, Haaland is much more expensive, and rightly so. Man City were probably the only club who could afford him.
Haaland is a freak of nature – unless facing Virgil van Dijk; the Dutchman turning on his turbochargers again last night to eat away the ground that Jarrod Bowen later hoped would swallow him whole. Even van Dijk attested to how tough Núñez was to face last season, as another tick in the box that says “Núñez is the real deal”, even if he won’t outscore Haaland.
What Liverpool fans – if any are getting sucked into the this illogical vortex – need to do is to focus on what Núñez can do for Liverpool, not what anyone else does for anyone else.
Things like X vs Y are for social media and 12-year-olds.
Liverpool – led by Núñez – were superb in the first half last night, until the penalty shook the team's confidence, even if Alisson duly saved it.
That's now three penalties conceded by Liverpool in the league, and zero won; which, given the team's eternally excellent attacking numbers, is the usual penalty farce.
A normal, expected distribution of penalties would be worth maybe 3-6 extra points to the Reds at this point, but that's the power the officials have – especially when penalties are an 80% chance of a goal, often given to some teams from situations where there's 0.01% of a chance of scoring. (Joe Gomez was clumsy, but players are clumsy against Mo Salah several times a game, often in the box.)
Of course, Núñez could take the penalties, if the team ever get any. He probably won't, because Mo Salah is so good at them. But Núñez does take a mean penalty, when settled and relaxed.
Ideally, you want players full of energy and aggression, but then calm in the moments when it matters; Núñez had that at Benfica, once he had settled in. The pressure is greater now, but he's scored in each of his last three starts. He's starting to prove to himself that he can crack this league, and he looked more relaxed last night.
Even without penalties, his underlying numbers in the league this season are stratospheric (albeit the numbers are generally non-penalty based, because penalties skew numbers so much). They are much, much higher than Sadio Mané’s last season, or Mo Salah’s this season. (NpxG+xA = non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists.)
The sample size is small, of course, but if he’s going to be judged within two minutes of a preseason game, we can certainly look at 342 minutes of league football (plus, he scored important goals against Man City in the Community Shield and Rangers in the Champions League). But here’s the longer-picture data:
In the last 365 days, he’s in the top 98th percentile for various attacking metrics: non-penalty goals; total shots; touches in the opposition box; and scores extremely highly in other metrics. He’s not a “passer”, but he’s an excellent carrier of the ball into dangerous areas, a hard-working tackler, an aerial threat, and an elite striker.
(And the passing can improve with world-class coaching, every day, with world-class players. Plus, although his actual assists are low, the expected assists are high – so teammates simply haven’t converted what he has created.)
What the stats don’t cover is his two-footedness. Núñez's two wrong-foot volleys – tipped over, and another thudding against the woodwork – were superb, and he also had a well-hit wrong-foot shot saved.
Rarely will you see a striker nearly score three times from proper shots with his 'swinger', but it shows that Núñez, unlike a lot of strikers, can go either way. I think this is vital, as it makes you harder to stop; the space is often only there on the weaker foot, and so many players waste time and chances by trying to switch.
(I always like Salah when he goes on his right-side, which he still doesn't do enough. Go that way a couple of times a game and even if you lose the ball, the space will start to open up on the inside more easily. Salah only tends to even try it when he’s full of confidence.)
Núñez is also rapidly improving in the air, with an incredible high-hanging leap, added to being 6'2" to start with. This is a player who clearly works at his game. He's a player who will further improve with time, to settle into the passing and pressing patterns (which also applies to Fabio Carvalho), getting more used to the league, and when learning the language.
There are more rough edges to smooth off, but he held the ball up and linked play nicely last night, too. He's never likely to have a touch as silky as Bobby Firmino, but Firmino was never this much of a powerhouse. Mo Salah at 23 was not as strong as the Mo Salah who arrived at Anfield a couple of years later.
So Núñez could also perhaps add a bit more upper body strength, and be even harder to handle (as long as he doesn't go full Romelu Lukaku, and eat the weights bench too).
I called Núñez a chaos machine in the summer (albeit I may not have been the first), and he just makes things happen. In part, it’s because his movement is so good, and he can find space – a great asset to have.
Even his brain-farts in the final minutes against Man City showed a player who could go past fast defenders with pace; carry the ball halfway up the pitch; win free-kicks around the area by committing defenders; and manufacture several big openings, even if he made the wrong decisions, as well as being inches away from a superb assist for a Trent Alexander-Arnold tap-in.
Last night, it was more about his shooting ability. I'm still waiting to see Núñez have a quiet game. And this is also a player who, thus far, has rarely been served many inviting crosses – last night’s from Kostas Tsimikas was a rare one, and he made the most of what was not an easy chance.
And against West Ham he didn’t seem to be trying too hard. He obviously began by taking a wide chance to shoot and instead crossing, as if he had to do the opposite of what he got wrong at the weekend.
But after that, all his shots were rightfully taken, and bar one scuffed shot as the ball flew straight at him off the post from his own shot (where he obviously couldn't have been expecting it), they were excellent attempts.
He could also have had four goals against Rangers, but for fine goalkeeping; one stop was excellent, the others all eminently saveable, but then Mo Salah hits several saveable shots per game, until he gets one with the right whip and bend. Núñez wasn't quite finding the corners, but for Benfica he often found the corners. That comes with relaxation. He can hit the ball with real venom, too.
With Luis Díaz and Diogo Jota providing much-needed relatively youthful zip and power until injuries, Núñez is now the only striker left who is not in his 30s or in (or barely out of) his teens; it’s been one of those seasons, injury-wise.
If he can stay fit, the Uruguayan can stretch defences, and anyone who focuses on his gaffes is missing the point; all players can have horrific low-lights compilations, given that all players miss big chances and miscontrol the ball.
I think I'm right in saying that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have missed more than 30 penalties each (and have below-average conversion rates), so to show a reel of all those misses would not sum up their careers. (In the days when Ronaldo used to stay in the stadium beyond the second half; funny, even now, how United only look good without him.)
Núñez's job is to help Liverpool win games. It's not to win silly 'takes' on social media. It’s not to outscore someone in another team, or win individual awards.
Whether or not he scores, his role is to stretch defences, run teams ragged, and either finish chances, or create chances, or create the space for others to profit. It's also to work, and press, and he's doing all these things. Per 90 minutes, his figures are elite; he just needs more minutes, and they will surely come his way.
A few additional thoughts on the game follow below, for subscribers only.
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