Having rarely been particularly active in the January transfer window under Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool have this week swooped in and gazumped Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United after having been made aware that the two Premier League clubs were preparing moves for a player the Reds had set their sights on signing in the summer of 2022, and in the process finally making a decade of wild A Bola fabrications about expensive Liga Bwin wingers moving to Anfield on at least this one occasion a reality.
The price tag, £50m including all the potential add-ons, is not a small sum, although £37.5m paid over three years with an additional £12.5 of the fee dependent on player performance milestones which may or may not be realistically achievable makes it sound a lot more like a Liverpool deal. Regardless, the most important question to answer is whether or not the player will be able to perform at the level required for a team fighting for all of football’s major trophies.
Here, we attempt to discern whether or not Luis Díaz is a player who fits that bill.
Luis Fernando Díaz Marulanda
Attacker | FC Porto/Colombia
DOB: 13/1/97 (25 years old) | Height: 5’10” (178cm)
2021/22 season: 28 appearances
16 goals | 6 assists
Strengths: If you’ve been paying any attention at all to how Liverpool recruit attackers over the past half decade, this will all seem very familiar to you. Luis Díaz is a pacy wide forward who presses, progresses the ball well, and takes shots like a striker. That’s the profile. That’s always the profile. Now for the details.
By some distance considered the consensus best player in the Primeira Liga so far this season, Díaz has largely earned that reputation by way of his proficiency in front of goal. While he shares top spot in the non-penalty goals column with fellow big-club transfer target Darwin Núñez with 14 markers, the Colombian has also notched four assists, taking his goal contribution up to a goal or assist every 84 minutes he’s on the pitch.
While he is on something of a hot streak, scoring those goals from an xG of 10.6, which represents an overperformance by a probably-unsustainable-but-not-ludicrous 32%, the 25-year old’s shot map is not that of a player simply getting lucky with some worldies. A full 83% of his shots have been taken from inside the penalty area — a dramatic improvement from the past two seasons where he stood at 64% — with an average expected goals value per shot of 0.17, the exact midpoint between Diogo Jota’s 0.20 and Mohamed Salah’s 0.14, and identical to Sadio Mané.
While the highlight packages will no doubt focus on his two or three belters from outside the area, typically Díaz’s shots come in one of two ways, either driving at and wrong-footing a defender in the box before going to the inside or outside for the finish, or ghosting in at the back post for a tap-in. These sorts of goals will make for a familiar sight for anyone who has watched Jürgen Klopp’s Reds over the past few years, and suggest the new man will be an easy stylistic fit.
While the Barrancas-born attacker is running somewhat hot on the finishing end, the opposite is true of his team-mates, and had the rest of the Porto side been performing to his level Díaz may very well have had a few more assists this season. Contributing 38 total key passes, Díaz has racked up 5.7 expected assists, for an average of 0.15 expected goals per chance created. Again, they are produced in familiar fashion, driving to the byline or thereabouts before sliding the ball across the box or cutting it back for a better placed teammate to finish.
Perhaps Díaz’s most oft-repeated strength is his pace, as he was famously clocked at a blistering 35.5 km/h in the Champions League this season, and once he gets into his stride, the Colombian is a terror for opponents. He uses this pace to torch defenders, averaging 2.7 successful dribbles per 90 minutes, good for ninth in the Primeira, and it is his manipulation of rhythm and body position at pace that stands out, the ability to square up to his man while at full sprint without losing speed then shifting his hips or dropping his shoulders and racing off again.
Nominally starting out on the left wing, Díaz will drop deep and look to carry the ball up the pitch with regularity. The 25-year-old was Porto’s main ball progresser this season, racking up 4.45 progressive passes and 9.25 progressive carries per 90 minutes. The latter number would put him in the top ten in the Premier League, alongside names like Jack Grealish, Bernardo Silva, and Jadon Sancho, and is a crucial component of Liverpool’s base play to complement Trent Alexander-Arnold’s passing on the other side.
Finally, the newly-minted Red is not averse to defensive work, averaging 12.4 presses per 90 minutes for the Dragões this season, and he will happily engage a dallying fullback or cut out a passing lane if instructed to.
Weaknesses: As always, when moving players from a weaker to a stronger league, there will be questions about the player’s ability to translate their production. Even among the other top five leagues in Europe, the Premier League stands out, and Portugal’s Primeira Liga is not in that category. Díaz will be facing a higher tempo, better athletes, and more ruthless referees — and history has shown it is difficult to predict how well he will adapt.
With regards to athleticism, while Díaz is remarkably difficult to catch when in his stride, his first step lacks directional drive, and he will usually need four or five to get up to speed. Combined with a stop-start dribbling style that often sees him driven backwards if brought to a halt, and a simple lack of physical strength, it is worth questioning whether his approach will be effective against the sort of athletes typically manning the fullback positions in the Premier League.
While the Colombian’s production this season has undoubtedly been phenomenal, it is also worth noting that it is also the only season it has ever looked like that. The 25-year old took a massive leap in development this season, doubling his shot volume and quality, and — while some improvement due to an upgrade in the daily performance environment is almost inevitable — it would be a stretch to count on him having another one of those in him at this stage. As such, Liverpool are banking on the past six months being the new normal for a player who had been all dribbling and little end product up until that point in his career.
This increase in attacking production also appears to have come at a cost of defensive output, as Díaz’s pressing numbers have been cut by nearly half over the past two seasons, meaning that even if he does directly translate his goals and assists from the Portuguese League, it’ll likely be while pressing like Mohamed Salah rather than Diogo Jota. This is not to be scoffed at, of course — Mohamed Salah is not a lazy defender — but the tradeoff is worth a mention.
Finally, the cost and age of the player means that this is likely the only big swing Liverpool will be making on offense this year. This means no Nkunku, no Raphinha, no Adeyemi, and no <insert favourite attacking target here> in the summer. Moving six months earlier means that the pressure is somewhat off for now and there will be more time for the integration process to take place before he is expected to perform, but when the time comes he will be expected to perform to the levels of Sadio Mané and Diogo Jota.
Summary: This writer has more doubts about this transfer than previous Liverpool attacking signings — mainly with regards to the relatively small data set of good production and the challenge of moving to a much better league — but the upside should things fall right is clear: Luis Díaz is a prototypical Liverpool inside forward with pace and energy and goals in his locker.
The Julian Ward era has officially begun, and now we hope that we’ll be able to look back and say it was with a bang.