With question marks hovering over Liverpool’s ability to refresh their aging and legendary front three, the Reds have decided to put the net spend boys on their heels, splashing the cash on one of Europe’s most wanted young attackers and paying a fee that could reach €100M with add-ons to bring in Benfica’s 22-year-old Uruguayan star Darwin Núñez.
It’s a crazy sum, the sort of stuff A Bola dreams up on a weekly basis, and will represent a club record fee even without the triggering many of the potential escalators. As such, it also carries with it an increased risk of failure, as anything short of world class production will see Núñez deemed as not living up to expectations.
Below, then, we analyse the player and attempt to predict whether he will be able to do just that and live up to his quite considerable price tag.
Darwin Gabriel Núñez Ribeiro
Attacker | Benfica/Uruguay
DOB: 24/6/99 (22 years old) | Height: 6’2” (187cm)
2021/22 season: 41 appearances
34 goals | 4 assists
Strengths: As Liverpool fans who watched the Reds’ quarter-final tie with Benfica back in April will know, and as Virgil van Dijk will attest, Núñez is an athletic handful. Brutally fast in open space and physically strong, the 22-year old gave Liverpool’s illustrious defenders all they could handle across 180 minutes. He also recorded the second highest top speed in this year’s Champions League, his 36.5km/h only beaten by Bayern Munich’s famously rapid full back Alphonso Davies.
This speed is used to great effect in the open field, and Núñez’s 1.8 successful dribbles per 90 minutes would only have been bettered by Luis Díaz and Mohamed Salah in the current Liverpool squad.
At a lean, springy 6’2, the Peñarol youth product is also a menace in the air, and his 21 headed shots this season would have placed him 6th last season in the Premier League — notably behind Joël Matip, Virgil van Dijk, and Diogo Jota — while only two players in Europe’s top five leagues bested his tally of six headed goals.
Of course, the reason Liverpool are doing a deal is because of how well Núñez leverages that athleticism to get goals. Because boy howdy does Darwin Núñez get goals. With 34 goals and four assists in under 3000 minutes this season, the Uruguayan generated a goal involvement every 74 minutes across all competitions. Even if you take out five penalties, a non-penalty goal or assist every 86 minutes is spectacular output anyway you look at it.
While he was definitely on something of a hot streak this year, outperforming his expected goals by nearly 40%, his career in Europe thus far suggests he is an elite finisher, averaging an xG over-performance rate of 15% over his last 8000 minutes played.
This isn’t a case of a player blowing his numbers out of the water by converting a handful of long-range efforts either, as Núñez’s shot map clearly paints the picture of a player good at getting on the end of huge chances — his average shot this season was rated at 0.21 xG, an outrageous number that would place him in the top five across Europe’s top leagues — and then tucking them away at a tremendous rate.
It’s also worth noting that while his numbers did drop off somewhat playing for an underdog side in the Champions League, he still put up excellent underlying metrics, and over the past two seasons of European competition has averaged a very nice 0.69 expected non-penalty goals and assists per 90 minutes.
So a 6’2 goal scoring machine sounds a lot like a target man central striker, doesn’t it? In Núñez’s case, it’s a little more complicated than that, as when he’s not running the channels like prime Fernando Torres, the Uruguayan likes to drift into the wide areas — preferably the left, but he will move to either flank — where he can isolate a fullback or centre-back and bully them with his athleticism before either shaping to shoot, swinging in a cross, or letting a pass go before taking up a dangerous position.
The latter is when his does his best work, as his sense of timing and positioning in the box is phenomenal, and whether it’s popping up at the right angle to tuck home a rebound or getting a free run at cross and piledriving it into the back of the net, Núñez is at his most dangerous when moving towards a ball coming into the box.
On the defensive end, the Artigas native is a willing and busy presser, if not a tremendously effective one. Averaging just shy of 17 pressures per 90 minutes, the majority of which take place in the attacking third, Núñez isn’t Diogo Jota or Roberto Firmino but would still rank ahead of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, and Luis Díaz. He puts in the work and when placed into a pressing system of Jürgen Klopp’s caliber, one would expect him to succeed.
He’s also very tall and really hot.
Question Marks: Every time Liverpool pick up a player from a less illustrious league, regardless of the price tag, we are compelled to point out that there will be a step up in competition and that there is a chance production will suffer as a consequence. It appears, however, that the Reds’ hierarchy — whether driven by Julian Ward’s experience in the region or copious and novel data accumulation — have identified Liga Portugal as one from which production translates to the Premier League better than, say, the Bundesliga, and are targeting players accordingly.
Luis Díaz’s performances have not put a dent in this notion, and Núñez will be another interesting and significant data point in the hypothesis. Still, at least until he becomes the sort of success his transfer fee suggests he should be, we will continue to invite caution when extrapolating numbers across leagues.
Although he is a statistically successful dribbler and has an array of flicks and tricks that will undoubtedly draw yer da’s good feet for a big man out of the woordwork, Núñez does rely on his physicality a lot to successfully beat a man. Whether through pure speed or by using his strength to unbalance a would-be tackler before breaking away, he’s accustomed to dominating defenders physically in order to succeed, and Premier League defenders are bigger, faster, and stronger than most others. It might not matter in the end, as the Uruguayan is all of those things too, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.
Then, there’s the passing. Núñez is, on current evidence, just not that great at it. Certainly he can pick a pass well enough in the box, and his key passes average an expected goals value of 0.16 a pop as he often finds open team-mates in great positions, but over the past two seasons he has averaged only 13 completed passes per 90 minutes at a success rate of 67%. He is a wonderful outlet and can carry the ball up the pitch and into the box with regularity, but doing the same through passing has been beyond him thus far and fans will undoubtedly experience some moments of frustration because of that.
Which invites the question of where he fits. Anybody expecting Núñez to replace Roberto Firmino as a line-leading false nine will be sorely disappointed, as he lacks the Brazilian’s vision, passing, and nimble footwork in tight spaces. While it is interesting to picture him leading the line in a 4231 — and a €100M transfer does seem like it might be a compelling argument to tweak the formation — a natural tendency to drift towards the flanks suggests he could also be at home in one of the wide attacker positions of Liverpool’s current 433. Specifically the left, where the Reds currently have Luis Díaz, Diogo Jota, Fabio Carvalho, and Sadio Mané competing for minutes.
The latter won’t be around for long, Carvalho is unlikely to be more than a rotation option this season, and Jota started last year playing in the middle and could end up filling that role again, but what at least seems certain is that Núñez has not been brought in to sit on the bench — behind Jota or Díaz or anyone else — and so it will be interesting to see how Klopp decides to shake out his front line when all the pieces are in place.
Summary: We have some questions, mainly regarding how he fits into the team’s best XI as it currently stands and whether his passing can be improved beyond its current limitations, but there are good reasons why Darwin Núñez has been one of Europe’s hottest prospects on everybody’s shortlists over the past 12 months, and it’s that passing aside he does just about everything at an elite level.
A superstar athlete and blockbuster finisher, he’s a 22-year old likely to have at least one more big leap in him, meaning Núñez has all the makings of being the sort of exceptionally rare talent that can live up to the obscene transfer fee the Reds have doled out for him. It’s never a sure thing with transfers, but he’s the kind of player that could legitimately, should things shake out right, carve himself out a place as a bona fide club legend.