When an attacking talent impresses Luis Suarez, Virgil van Dijk and Jurgen Klopp, he must have something about him. All three of them, moreover, had the opportunity to observe the talent — Uruguayan striker Darwin Nunez — at close quarters.
Suarez knows his compatriot’s qualities very well and sought to dismiss comparisons between them, insisting that the 23-year-old be given his own spotlight.
“Darwin will write his own story at Liverpool. He is Uruguayan and he is a forward but that is where the comparisons stop — he is a special player and doesn’t need to be compared with anybody,” Suarez, among the top strikers of his generation, told The Mirror.
“It was last season that Europe started to take notice of him, but from an early age I could see there was something special in him,” he added.
Van Dijk, who came up against Nunez in the Champions League when Liverpool played Benfica, offered a glowing verdict of his then opponent. “Very direct, quick, tall and strong. Quite difficult to play against,” said van Dijk, regarded as one of the game’s premier centre-backs.
After watching his formidable central defenders being harried by Nunez, Klopp was similarly struck by the front-man who found the net twice over two legs.
‘Really good, really good’
“A good looking boy, huh? And a decent player as well!” joked the Liverpool manager. “Really good, really good. I knew before, of course, but he played pretty much in front of me with his tough battles with Ibrahima Konate. He was physically strong, quick, and was calm around his finish. I always say in these situations, if he is healthy, it’s a big career ahead of him.”
The next several years of that potentially “big career” will play out at Liverpool after the Reds signed their man for a fee that could rise to a club-record 100 million euros.
Liverpool is among the shrewdest operators in the transfer market; the club loosens its purse strings only after due diligence and abundant caution.
So when Liverpool does decide to go big and Klopp says it’s a signal of “decisiveness and ambition in equal measure”, there’s a good chance something is brewing.
Some experts have described it as an immediate response to the signing of another of Europe’s top strikers, Erling Haaland, by Premier League title rival Manchester City.
But there is more to the move than competitive sabre-rattling. It’s interesting that the two teams on the frontier of tactical progress have both chosen to secure a physical forward who can play through the centre, a modern No. 9, after having used systems without one.
“Darwin is already really good but has so much potential to get even better,” Klopp told the club’s website. “That’s why it’s so exciting, to be honest. His age, his desire, his hunger to be even better than he currently is. His belief in our project and what we are looking to do as a club.”
Nunez’s purchase continues Klopp’s overhaul of Liverpool’s attacking options — the first iteration of the side’s fearsome, transformational front three, which fired the club back to winning major honours, is coming to an end. Sadio Mane has joined Bayern Munich while Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino are out of contract in 2023.
Klopp has already assimilated Luis Diaz, who made a huge impact in the second half of last season after a January move, and Diogo Jota, who has scored 34 goals in the past two seasons, into his front line.
But Nunez appears a more significant addition; his arrival perhaps portends another evolution of Liverpool’s way of playing. It certainly adds an exceptional arrow to the quiver.
The Uruguayan — almost 6’2” but capable of explosive bursts of speed — will offer something new to the attack, which has relied on the mobility of a smaller, interchangeable forward line containing three of Salah, Mane, Firmino, Jota and Diaz.
“He plays without fear, he’s powerful. I know he will excite our supporters,” said Klopp. “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.”
Liverpool, under Klopp, has several ways to hurt the opposition.
The side remains a devastating force in transition, with quick ball-shifts to the wide areas, mostly to the full-backs, who find runners. Counter-pressing and winning the ball in the opposition’s final third is another method. Liverpool has also developed into a side that can control possession and generate shots, especially against mid-blocks.
Many opposition sides, confronted with so many threats, have taken to defending deep and narrow, looking, when they win the ball, to attack the space behind Liverpool’s full-backs.
These stubborn low-blocks, combined with athletic outlets, have caused Liverpool some trouble. Tottenham Hotspur defended deep in a narrow five and looked to spring its forwards. Newcastle (under Eddie Howe) and Wolverhampton Wanderers were other teams that set up similarly.
Klopp countered this last season with a switch from his favoured 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1.
Bigger threat in the box
Nunez amplifies the quality of this option, with Firmino behind him in the No. 10 space. He offers a bigger threat in the box, with crosses whipped in against deep-sitting teams. His strength in aerial duels should allow the three behind him to attack second balls, too.
Liverpool could, in theory, be able to play a more direct, vertical style when it needs to, with early balls to Nunez. He has the athletic gifts to participate in fast breaks as well.
Nunez also enhances a 4-3-3. He is comfortable in wide areas — for Benfica, he also played on the left and even when starting centrally made out-to-in runs. So he should fit within Klopp’s fluid front line. His pace also pins back defences, which will help advance his team up the pitch and buy space for the build-up behind him.
Nunez isn’t without his rough edges. His first touch and associative play aren’t consistently world class, but Klopp and his team of coaches have a track record of improving players.
The 23-year-old’s upside is significant. He arrives at Anfield after two seasons in Portugal with Benfica, where he scored 48 goals from 85 appearances in all competitions, including 34 in 41 games last season.
His underlying metrics are even more impressive. According to Sky Sports, he leads the field for under-23 players in terms of goals and shots on target every 90 minutes across Europe’s top five leagues and the Primeira Liga. Nunez’s 1.07 goals and 1.81 shots on target per 90 are better than Haaland's 1.03 and 1.74 respectively.
For Liverpool, which narrowly missed an unprecedented quadruple of trophies last season, Nunez could develop into a point of difference in tight matches.
He certainly wants to write himself into the club’s storied history.
“It’s a massive club,” said Nunez. “When I arrived at the training ground, I was really surprised to see the set-up and the structure and all the trophies here. You can then imagine yourself winning more trophies and then later on when you come here again and see the trophies on display, you can say, ‘Look, I was a part of that, I was there at that time, winning trophies’.
“That’s one of the reasons why I came here to Liverpool — to win trophies and titles.”