Preceding Sadio Mané’s shock departure for Bayern Munich, Reds recruitment staff kept themselves busy preparing for the possibility of one of their infamous front three departing.
Spearheaded by newly promoted Sporting Director, Julian Ward, Liverpool landed on the decision to approach Benfica’s star striker Darwin Núñez, who reaped havoc when the two teams met in the UEFA Champions League earlier this year. The Uruguayan’s outstanding 26-goal haul in the Primeira Liga caught the attention of clubs around Europe, putting his price tag up all the way to €80 million.
Liverpool remained favourites to sign the Benfica man throughout the early days of the window, even despite competition from Newcastle and United; and Jurgen Klopp has already expressed his delight in the securement of Núñez’s signature.
“He has all the pieces we look for. He can set a tempo, he brings energy, he can threaten space from central and wide areas. He is aggressive and dynamic with his movement… …he plays without fear, he’s powerful.” liverpoolfc.com
As the German coach highlights, the Uruguayan’s versatility and energy should allow him to fit in straight away at Liverpool. If Luis Diaz’s success is anything to go by, Núñez will be just fine.
But impressively for the Reds, they now have an entire pre-season to allow the 22-year-old time to become accustomed to the demands of the team, something Diaz never had the time for. Yet again, the Reds have managed to get all their business done early this year, with Fabio Carvalho and Calvin Ramsay two more exciting arrivals for the future.
Carvalho and Ramsay may both take time to settle in and grow into the team, whereas the big-money signing will be expected to play an instrumental role this season, rotating with the array of talent in Liverpool’s front-line.
LIVERPOOL’S STRIKING NEED
A spectacular season for the Reds ended with bitter disappointment ,where they went from believing four trophies were within their grasp, to only attaining the two less popular titles of those four – the FA Cup and Carabao Cup.
At the start of last season, many questioned the Reds’ lack of urgency to replace a player like Georginio Wijnaldum, and whether or not Ibrahima Konaté had enough gusto to drastically improve the Reds’ concerns at centre-half from the year before.
But the Reds stuck to their guns and the players already at their disposal, and it came as a massive surprise to many that they finished the season in such strong form with little to no transfer action throughout the season. The signing of Darwin Núñez marks a different approach, whereby they are now putting their eggs into the Uruguayan’s basket, particularly in helping to fulfill the Mane void, and even providing a natural focal point or Plan B up top.
Mané’s departure to Bayern Munich has been met by an absolute steal of £35 million, helping in some way to provide funds for the sizable €75 million fee associated with the Uruguayan. In Divock Origi, they’ve also lost the best squad player they could have asked for, and a natural Plan B to change matches late on.
Takumi Minamino also looks likely to move away from the club, which would have left the Reds with only Salah, Diaz, Jota and Firmino to rotate around in attack. Even that remains one of the best attacks in the league, regardless of who plays. But Núñez’s arrival provides greater variability to their attack, allowing Klopp greater options in selecting a style of forward that best suits the occasion.
Nevertheless, Núñez has massive boots to fill. Albeit in a different role, Sadio Mané made himself a cult-hero during his seven-year stint with the club, scoring 120 goals in 269 appearances. Like the Senegalese striker, the 6’2 centre-forward can play either up top or offset to the left, where he will naturally drift over to the left-hand-side regardless of starting position. His pressing intensity, mobility, and brute strength wonderfully match Mané, it will just be about transferring that evident quality over to the pitch.
Further, as Firmino’s contract expires in 2023, the Reds were right in identifying a capable and appropriate striker for the future of their club. Núñez’s signing at Anfield provides a strong step towards future stability in the ‘number 9’ spot, without mitigating Diogo Jota’s potential to fill the void and continue as an important member of the side himself.
The 22-year-old’s hold-up play remains an important facet of his game, but he will be better using his speed and strength to work the channels, break free and cause havoc to the opposition. His energetic verve and gusto will nicely match the intensity of Luis Diaz, providing an exciting prospective front three for next season. But if Liverpool want to continue with the illustrious false-nine tactic that has served them so well over the years, then Núñez will need to be given as much time as possible to adapt to new demands of his game. Diogo Jota may start from the off instead, as the Uruguayan provides a spice and flair to mix matches up late on.
DARWIN NÚÑEZ’ STYLE OF PLAY
Darwin Núñez brings an abundance of tenacity on and off the ball, and it’s clear to see why Liverpool were desperate to secure a deal for the Benfica talisman early in the window. Firstly, being 6’2, Núñez provides enough physicality, strength-wise and aerially, to compete with most Premier League defenders.
In Konaté, Matip and Van Dijk, he’ll also have three of the best to constantly contend with in training, consistently helping to raise the level of his game. But beyond raw strength, Darwin’s pace, power and dynamism correlates to that of Erling Haaland, possessing the excessive work rate to compete with the Norwegian.
When you combine that strength and mobility with a sheer knack for scoring goals and contributing in the final third, you get one of the most dangerous players in all of Europe.
Out of possession, Núñez can often be found as the lone striker for Benfica, pressing from the front. Although the energetic nature of his play is clear, this doesn’t frequently result in possession gained high up the pitch. In practice, the lack of support for the Uruguayan falters his ability to regain possession and hit the opposition on the counter from a high-pressing scenario. With the Reds, Núñez will inevitably be more triumphant in this phase, due to their constant hounding of the ball in packs.
Whilst having some responsibility as the de facto leader of the press, he will be well situated alongside some of the most intelligent pressers in Europe, and that part of the game will likely come natural to the energetic Uruguayan as he learns his trade.
Darwin’s central role defensively with Benfica could also be redesigned to tailor to the needs of Klopp’s men. He may be asked to support the pressing structure from a wider position at times, offering the Reds greater flexibility depending on the occasion.
In possession, every Premier League defender will be quaking in their boots at the thought of Núñez being added to a growing selection of frightening forwards already in the division. The marquee signing’s composure in front of goal is second to none, and the main reason why Liverpool splashed the cash before any other club could bat an eye. His performances in the Champions League have shown that he possesses the calmness and precision to devastate any keeper in the world, and that will prove pivotal when facing the likes of Ederson and De Gea in the peak of their powers.
Extraordinarily, the 22-year-old bagged a goal every 76 minutes last season in the Primeira Liga, which outperformed the rest by a mile. Fortunately for Liverpool fans, the next best was Luis Díaz, who still only managed a goal every 107 minutes, suggesting the Uruguayan international should also hit the ground running in the Premier League. To further claim, Núñez also scored his goals in an efficient manner, as he managed to keep more than half of his shots on target, whilst converting an impressive 26% of his chances. His desire to move wide in attacking transitions has also helped Núñez exhibit his notable shot-creation qualities that pit him 21st in Portugal for xA (expected assists) per 90, stressing how much of a well-rounded striker he is, even at his young age.
Accompanying his reputable conduct in front of goal, Núñez isn’t one to shy away from a battle, and seeks out moments where he can take defenders on and show them who’s boss. Pronounced close control in combination with the emphatic power he boasts will leave opposing player’s in ‘no man’s land’ as they attempt to stop him.
HOW NÚÑEZ WILL FIT IN
In terms of similarities between clubs, both sides have spent their league season enjoying on average more than 60% of possession, showing Núñez as a suitable player for a possession-dominant team. On top of that, Benfica created 2.62 big chances per 90 as opposed to the Reds’ 2.55, suggesting chances will still be a plenty for the new number twenty-seven. There will be more chances for Núñez to pick up possession from long balls as Liverpool were 2nd in the league for successful long passes last season, whilst Benfica sat fifth from bottom.
There will also be a rise in the number of chances in transition for the striker, as the Reds managed 7.6 possession gains in the final 1/3 per 90, in comparison to As Águias’ 5.2. At Benfica, he’s proved himself as a goalscorer, creator and pressing workhorse; three characteristics commonly praised by Klopp and his coaching staff. Those characteristics are likely only to continue, particularly if he can hit the ground running just like his predecessors in Jota and Diaz.
On the left-wing, Núñez can even push Luis Díaz to greater heights, simply by providing competition for places, and combining on the field as a tandem duo. Despite not being as skillful or creative 1v1, the prolific-finishing threat and immaculate running power of Núñez would be an antagonising prospect for right-backs across the league. As Núñez possesses an intriguing tendency to come wide and pick out a cross, Diaz would be afforded greater variability in his own movement around the field.
So although the Reds already have numbers prepared to take up the left-wing spot, it’s more than possible that their new man spends some of his playing time manning the position. The right flank would feel less likely, particularly given Mohamed Salah‘s status as one of the best in the world. But Darwin’s versatility still puts him in good faith to start anywhere along the front-line, where he can provide an array of qualities that the club previously lacked in their attack.
Finally, the real reason you’d imagine he was brought in: to lead the line as a centre-forward. If he was to play there, the Uruguayan would be competing with the likes of Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota. As previously mentioned, Núñez would be less likely to adopt the ‘false nine’ role of Firmino or Jota, but could fulfill the role when required given his raw physicality and next-level hold-up play.
Instead, a role as an advanced-forward would underline his star qualities, wonderfully match Trent Alexander-Arnold’s ability to whip in a cross from deep, and take the burden off Mohamed Salah to score week in and week out.
The signing of Darwin Núñez may be an expensive one, but it’s difficult to find a top-tier striker for a reasonable price in today’s market, and the Uruguayan adds an abundance of necessary versatility to Liverpool’s attack.
In light of the departures to Liverpool’s front-line, most notably Sadio Mané, Núñez’s arrival comes at a perfect time, and matches the tone of players they’ve signed in recent years to help create that extra competitive edge.
A fabulous runner with an infectious work rate that culminates in some of the most composed finishing you’ll see from any striker in the world, it’s hard to remember sometimes that Núñez will be entering the season as a 23-year-old. With his best years still ahead and a contract that runs until at least 2028, the expensive signing could pay dividends in the long-run, particularly as Liverpool continue to transition away from their illustrious front three of the past.
Salah and Firmino have less than 12 months on their contracts, and Mane’s already gone. A sad thought that perhaps warrants a tear in the eye of Reds fans everywhere, but a new era is upon them.