The Curious Case of Darwin Núñez
The king is dead. Long live the king.
Well here we are. Liverpool have agreed a deal to sign Uruguay forward Darwin Núñez from Benfica for an initial £64 million. After add-ons, he will become the most expensive signing in Liverpool’s history, and double the amount of Liverpool’s previous most expensive forward signing Luis Diaz. The deal has been conducted by Liverpool’s new sporting director Julian Ward and perhaps signals a shift in policy from the outgoing Michael Edwards. Media outlets have highlighted Ward’s contacts in Portugal as a potential driver for the deal, and whilst network based recruitment does raise some concerns, I’m confident that even with Edwards’ departure, Liverpool will continue to deploy a rigorous analytical framework when assessing potential targets. In that context, why and how have they landed on Darwin Núñez as their top choice?
Liverpool are just off the back of a 90+ point season, a Champions League final and a domestic cup double - surely there was a case to be made for sticking heading into next season. Instead, Liverpool are twisting and twisting big. The 2021/22 season saw Liverpool reach their highest levels of performance in the Klopp era - even better than the Champions League winning season in 18/19, and certainly better than the league winning season in 19/20. That said, there are a number of questions heading into the 2022/23 season.
Roberto Firmino missed 25 games through 4 separate injuries last season. His underlying numbers remain excellent, but from an eye-test perspective it does seem like he may have lost a bit of the burst that made him so devastating at his peak. Sadio Mane is already halfway out the door - it’s just a question of Bayern meeting or at least getting close to Liverpool’s valuation of the player. Despite many misreading Mane’s second half of the season as some grand return to form, the truth is he just finished much better in the second half of the season. From an underlying performance perspective, what’s remarkable about Mane is how consistent he has been across his six seasons at the club. He has played off the right, the left and latterly through the middle, and irrespective of position he has generally put up around 0.7 npxG+xA p90. There is a sense however that Mane has lost a step - he isn’t the speed demon he once was - but to his credit he has continued to play at an elite level. Liverpool deciding to cash in on him just as he enters his post-peak years is no surprise.
In the days that followed the news of Mane’s imminent departure, a number of names were bandied around as potential replacements. In the interest of transparency, I have been wrong at just about every turn. Initially, I didn’t expect the club to sign another forward at all. I reasoned that Diaz was the Mane replacement, and I expect Carvalho to get plenty of minutes next season. This notion was dispelled pretty quickly though - press briefings emphasised Liverpool’s desire to get a replacement for Mane through the door before any sale to Bayern Munich was sanctioned. At that point, the names that came to mind were Christopher Nkunku, Arnaut Danjuma, Serge Gnabry and Lucas Paqueta (my own personal fancy, though the player has never been seriously linked with the club). I reasoned that because all of our premium forward signings since Klopp joined have been between the age of 23-25 and have clearly been wide forwards but with striker-like shot numbers. When it became clear Núñez was the guy it appeared that notion was entirely wrong. Núñez, unlike the aforementioned players is much more of a pure 9, and so Liverpool must surely be gearing up for a significant shift in style to accommodate him? Maybe not as much as you might think.
Núñez’s radar (credit to Euan Dewar) makes for interesting reading. Even a cursory glance at his profile is enough to tell you that Núñez is not merely a poacher. As displayed in his radar, Núñez completes more dribbles than 85% of other forwards. Not just that, Núñez is regularly carrying the ball into dangerous areas - highlighted by his dribble and carry OBV where he ranks in the in the 94th percentile. For those unaware, OBV stands for On Ball Value, Will Thomson of Statsbomb defines it as:
Conceptually, OBV assesses ball progression value by estimating how much an event improves (or reduces) the team’s expected goal difference over the current and next possessions.
More info on OBV can be found here: https://statsbomb.com/articles/soccer/introducing-on-ball-value-obv/
This radar highlights why Liverpool think Núñez is a worth breaking their transfer record for. It’s striking just how similar his output was to Mane’s last season. Both played the first half of the season as left sided forwards and both ended the season as central strikers. Mane was a more effective presser and Núñez created more for his teammates, but beyond that they are almost like for like. Interestingly, whilst ball security is one of Núñez’s primary deficiencies, Mane actually turned the ball over more than him last season.
As well as acting as an effective outlet for Benfica last season, Núñez was also able to get into the box and get shots off from dangerous areas. Looking at his shot map, it’s no surprise that he’s in the 95th percentile when it comes to xG p90.
When a player overperforms their xG by as much as Núñez did last season, it’s tempting to put it down to the player just being a great finisher, however using single season samples to draw sweeping conclusions about a player’s finishing skill is a fool’s game. The truth is, you need multiple seasons worth of data to be confident about finishing skill. Which players would I confidently describe as great finishers? Son Hueng-Min? definitely. Harry Kane? yes. Lionel Messi? obviously. Núñez? maybe.
Perhaps the most notable thing is the defensive numbers. 9 pressures p90 puts him in the 4th percentile for strikers. For comparison, last season Diogo Jota recorded around 22 pressures p90, putting him in the 93rd percentile amongst strikers. The big question is whether or not the low defensive action numbers can largely be explained by the system he played in or whether it points to an issue with the player himself. If Liverpool are going to break their transfer record for him, it’s safe to say that they are confident it’s the former.
The Eye Test
As his radar suggests, Núñez is not your stereotypical battering-ram striker. He’s 6ft 2 and
has a good touch for a big man has good pace for a big man. And by good I mean ridiculous.
Núñez is the kind of athlete that would show up incredibly well at an NFL combine type event I imagine. Whilst he typically plays as a 9, in the first half of last season under Jorge Jesus, Núñez played the bulk of his minutes as a left sided forward in a 3-4-3. Jorge Jesus was sacked during the winter break however and during the second half of the season, his replacement Nélson Veríssimo moved to a 4-4-2 system which saw Núñez move to the number 9 position. He is an excellent ball-carrier and even when lined up as a striker constantly looks to pull into the left channel. There are question marks about his close control and ability to manipulate the ball in tight spaces, but he is incredibly dangerous when presented with space. This sequence against Bayern Munich in the Champions League is pretty indicative of the kind of player Núñez is. The first touch off his thigh is a bit loose, the second touch is irrelevant and the third touch is clumsy to say the least, and yet, it doesn’t really matter. What’s notable is the guy he’s up against is a Champions League calibre centre back in Niklas Süle (all 6ft 5 and 90kg of him), yet Núñez is able to work a yard of space with ease which allows him to get a dangerous shot off.
Having watched my fair share of YouTube compilations (and full matches) this kind of thing is fairly common with Núñez. He runs into what look like cul-de-sacs but somehow emerges with the ball as it bobbles between limbs. In a lot of compilations I’ve seen, there are multiple moments where Nunez carries the ball into space, but then just as he’s about to make a pass it moves onto the next clip.. never a great sign. More on that later.
Another notable aspect of Núñez’s game is his movement in and around the penalty area. He is an excellent scanner - constantly moving his head to see where the next pass is going. He is always looking to play on the shoulder of the last defender, either from central areas or from out wide. Benfica deployed a quick, transition based style of football under Nélson Veríssimo and this certainly played to Núñez’s strengths. A great example of this was his goal against Porto that was ruled out for a marginal offside. Otamendi has the ball on the halfway line under minimal pressure and Porto’s backline too square and too high. As Otamendi creeps forward with the ball, Núñez comes back from an offside position and springs behind his marker just as the pass is played into the space behind Porto’s defence. He shows remarkable technique and composure to firstly track the ball in the air from over his shoulder, then to kill the ball with his first touch. He then utilises ‘la pausa’, chops inside with his left foot and slots the ball past the goalkeeper with ease. ‘La pausa’ (yep you guessed it, the pause) is a phrase that has typically been used to describe ethereal midfielders like Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. It’s less associated with strikers, but Darwin Núñez definitely has it. He has the distinction of utilising la pausa for not one, but two disallowed goals against Porto.
Okay so both of these goals v Porto were disallowed but they really were marginal calls. An even better example of this technique was the goal he scored against his future club in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final.
The most impressive thing about this goal is that Núñez can’t think that Konate is going to botch the clearance, and yet he never takes his eye off the ball and makes a late adjustment to control the ball before taking ‘la pausa’ and slotting it past Alisson. It’s incredibly subtle but it makes all the difference. Having that level of clarity in the penalty area is such a valuable asset, particularly at the elite level where space is at a premium.
We Need to Talk About Passing
This is arguably the weakest aspect of Núñez’s game. As Ryan O’Hanlon of ESPN pointed out:
Fabrizio Romano @FabrizioRomanoLiverpool are planning to prepare an opening, verbal bid for Darwin Núñez to test water with Benfica. Proposal could be around €80m with add-ons. Manchester United also in contact with Núñez’s agent. 🇺🇾 #LFC Both clubs guarantee they have no intention to enter into bidding war. https://t.co/pH559Xnpuy
This absolutely shows up when you watch him too. His passing can be a bit clumsy - whether it’s simple lay offs being overhit, through balls being played too late or passing straight into a crowded area. He needs to improve his awareness when receiving the ball with his back to goal. Too often his first touch is loose and he overestimates how much time he has - this allows defenders to poke the ball away from him or leads to a rushed pass. His former coach at Almeria Jose Gomes highlighted this as an area where Núñez could improve:
He has to prepare himself better in the moment before he receives the ball, especially when he’s in the central corridor [of the pitch].
As per Michael Caley, Núñez completes just 40% of his attempted passes into the penalty area. The clip below highlights it well. Although Sporting have plenty of bodies back, it’s easy to see that if he gets the weight of the pass right here, Diogo Gonçalves can probably square the ball across to the Benfica player attacking the penalty spot.
The thing that’s really noticeable when you watch Núñez is that he just isn’t all that interested in passing. There are times when he’s given ample opportunity to drop into space to link play and he just doesn’t. When he does drop off the last line into a more number 10 type position, it’s often so he can then spin and arc his run into the left channel - Benfica liked using him as an out ball and he was a more than willing runner - not too dissimilar to Salah at Liverpool, just on the opposite side of the pitch. Whilst it’s definitely a weakness, Núñez does have some good passes on his tape (apologies for the Americanism).
The last pass is definitely my favourite because I think it’s the most difficult one to execute. Rafa Silva makes the initial pass out to Núñez and then drives into the box - but he is sandwiched between two opposing defenders. Still, Núñez is able to spot the run and execute the pass with minimal backlift - it’s an impressive bit of play and I have to admit I was pretty shocked to see it given everything else I have seen of him thus far. Still, there is obviously a lot of scope for improvement when it comes to his passing ability.
So is he the New Cavani or What?
Player comps are notoriously difficult and are often laced with all sorts of biases but here goes anyway.
The Cavani comparisons are inevitable. The passport, the physique, the hair. On the surface it would be easy to dismiss any such comparisons as lazy, but I do think there’s something to it. Because there is little to no data from Cavani’s 3 seasons at Palermo when he was in his early twenties, it’s impossible to provide a rigorous statistical comparison. That said, when you watch footage of Cavani at Palermo, the similarities really come through.
The desire to get into the six-yard box, taking shots early, making a nuisance of himself and pinching goals through being a pain in the arse for opposition centre-backs. Obviously Cavani continued to develop at Napoli and then at PSG and ended up becoming one of the best strikers in the world. He was also grossly underrated for years because the idea that he was a bad finisher took hold, despite the fact that he scored 216 goals in 304 games for Napoli and PSG. Núñez getting to the level Cavani reached at his peak is the absolute best case scenario here. What’s interesting is that when you look at Cavani’s underlying numbers at PSG, there are a number of similarities. During the 2017/18 season (I’ll be honest, I looked at this season because it’s the most recent one Fbref have where he was actually a regular at PSG), Cavani completed just 13.77 passes p90 - even fewer than Núñez last season - though his success rate was better at 78.1%. Despite being viewed as both tenacious and selfless, Cavani’s defensive numbers, like Núñez’s are underwhelming. For example, during the 2017/18 season, he completed just over 10 pressures p90 to Núñez’s 9. Núñez is a more adept ball carrier than Cavani ever was, but Cavani was an excellent outlet and developed into an excellent all rounder. The hope has to be that Núñez follows a similar development path.
Other names that came to mind when watching Núñez: Fernando Torres and Timo Werner. The Torres comparison has been mentioned a lot already and it’s easy to see why, though I think Torres was a more fluid mover than Núñez. The Werner comparison won’t be popular but poor Timo really isn’t as bad as you think, honest. Werner, like Núñez is a straight line player. That is, when they’re allowed to play in straight lines their strengths really come to the fore, but when the game is compressed they are unable to impact games in the same way. There is a certain stiffness about Werner that Núñez does display at times. Even when starting from the number 9 position, both Werner and Núñez spend a lot of time on the left hand touchline. It makes sense because the wider you are on the pitch the more space you’re likely to have. At the present moment, neither have the skillset required to impact the game in tighter spaces, so their attacking movements are typically from out to in. The clip below is a good example - the initial run is really impressive - particularly the drop of the shoulder which sees him ghost past the opposing midfielder, but the pass is rushed. It’s interesting that Núñez can slow the game down when he’s in the penalty box, but in these kind of situations ‘la pausa’ deserts him. It’s probably just a case of him being really confident in his ability to shoot and much less so in his ability to pass.
How Will He Fit in at Liverpool?
This is the big question. As outlined, Núñez’s ball carrying ability is such that using him purely as an orthodox 9 seems like a bit of a waste, and yet, Liverpool aren’t exactly short of ball progressors on the left side of their team. Robertson, Thiago, Diaz and Jota are all either good or excellent ball progressors and so I don’t think you can rule out Klopp envisaging Núñez as more of an orthodox 9 - think Aubameyang under Tuchel. This is perhaps a little bit simplistic, but it’s easy to see Núñez being more of a pure box presence when Diaz is playing off the left, however if it’s Jota I would anticipate those two interchanging - when Jota goes central Núñez pulls wide left and vice versa.
The relationship with Salah is going to be key to the success of Núñez’s first season at Anfield. This is of course based on the assumption that Salah will still be at Liverpool next season - but the man himself has said he will be so let’s take him at his word. Sam McGuire has suggested that Salah and Núñez could end up working in a similar way to Salah and Džeko at Roma. Initially I was sceptical about this comparison but having gone back and watched Salah at Roma, I can absolutely see what Sam is getting at. Whilst Džeko is a more polished striker than Núñez is at present, when you look at Salah’s goals at Roma, very few of his goals come from Džeko backing into a centre back and playing a give and go with Salah (think Giroud with Mbappe and Griezmann). It’s more Džeko’s physical presence and his ability to stay on the last line occupying centre backs that stands out. Despite putting up fantastic numbers yet again, there were times last season when Salah was too isolated - passes played up to him and then no one close enough to him to combine with. With Núñez in the team, Salah is always going to have someone he can rely on to occupy defenders and open up space for him to do his best work. As Salah is about to hit 30, there is probably an argument for tweaking his role slightly - less focus on using him as an outlet in behind and more emphasis on his playmaking ability (which remains underrated).
If Klopp was set on getting a 9 rather than another wide forward like Nkunku, I do think Núñez is the best of a very limited number of options. Other names that come to mind are Tammy Abraham, Victor Osimhen and Lautaro Martinez. Abraham and Martinez are certainly more polished strikers than Núñez at the moment, but they’re both a couple of years older than Núñez and likely to be equally as expensive. Without damning them with faint praise, whilst Martinez and Abraham are both very good strikers, given their age and skillsets, they are what they are at this point. Osimhen is closer in age to Núñez but he does even less in possession that Núñez - he attempted just 15.77 passes p90 last season, completing 70%. I am quite comfortable in saying that Núñez is the most traits-y striker of this bunch, and not only that, he’s without question the most versatile. Núñez gives you the striker type shot production but in addition you also get elite level ball carrying and ability to operate in wide areas. This should allow Liverpool to retain a good deal of the fluidity in forward areas that has made them so dominant over the last few years.
The Premier League Landscape
Despite coming off the back of an otherworldly season, the signing of Darwin Núñez signals that Liverpool aren’t going to rest on their laurels when it comes to adding attacking talent. They stomped all over the Premier League last season with a frankly ridiculous 1.45 xGD/90 - which in layman’s terms basically means they were a goal and a half per game better than the league last season. The problem of course is that Man City were 1.63 goals better than the league last season and yet again pipped Liverpool to the Premier League title. So the summer after a season in which Liverpool took a quadruple run through until mid-May, they have gone out and smashed their transfer record on a 6ft 2 striker playing in Portugal - why?
92 points, 94 goals and a goal difference of +55, and yet some issues do stand out. In games against the rest of the top four last season, Liverpool played 6 and drew 6. There are narratives within this mini table you could use to excuse the lack of a single win of course: Spurs away was a patched up midfield with no van Dijk at the back; Chelsea away there was no Alisson, Robertson or Thiago; City at home with Milner up against Foden. But equally, some things broke for Liverpool too. In the home game against Chelsea Liverpool failed to break down 10 men for an entire half, and in all honesty didn’t ever look like doing so; the Spurs home game a similar story - plenty of territory and shots, but basically zero clear chances.
You could make the argument that Man City didn’t have a stellar record in that top four mini-league last season either. They lost twice to Spurs, but they comfortably beat Chelsea home and away and ended up 2 points better off in the top four mini-league than Liverpool. 2 points might not sound like a lot but then.. *points at the league table from last season*.
The quality of coaching at the top end of the Premier League is as good as it’s ever been - the top four from last season arguably boast the four best managers in the world. If Liverpool can find a way to win that particular mini-league against Guardiola, Tuchel and Conte their chances of winning the league are pretty high. Is the signing of Núñez recognition on Klopp’s part that Liverpool need something ‘extra’ to turn draws against the likes of Chelsea and Man City into wins? Klopp has given Guardiola more issues than any other manager, but Guardiola has made tactical adjustments in the last couple of seasons, resulting in fewer defensive vulnerabilities. In Klopp’s early seasons, Liverpool could cut through City and expose their weakness in transition, but City are more cautious and compact than in previous seasons. The 100 point City team pretty much pushed David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne right up the pitch to make a front five, which although terrifying was vulnerable to counter attacks. The departure of David Silva and Fernandinho’s athleticism gradually eroding meant that Guardiola had a tactical issue to solve. What he’s done is use Bernardo Silva in a quasi double pivot with Rodri (particularly against Liverpoo) - making it much more difficult to get at City’s backline in transition. Given this new reality, is a different approach against City required? Although he scored in the game at the Etihad, Jota just doesn’t have the physicality or speed to truly frighten City’s centre backs. He’s one of those players that’s quicker with the ball than without it, but he doesn’t have the kind of electric pace that Núñez possesses and can’t attack space in the same way. In both City games last season, there were long spells where Liverpool were pushed back and simply unable to get a foothold in the game. This was also the case in the first half of the second leg against Villareal - Liverpool couldn’t play through Villareal’s press and every time they went long the ball was coming straight back. Even though Núñez is by no means Harry Kane when it comes to hold up play, his athleticism demands respect from opposing defences. It will be interesting to see the extent to which Liverpool adapt their game plan in games against City last season. If they do, Núñez is likely to be a huge part of it.
Núñez is a fascinating player and Liverpool deciding he is their guy is even more fascinating. I will be completely up front and say he wouldn’t have been my choice, but then I hadn’t seen enough of him and I do not have a PHD in astrophysics. The more I’ve seen of him, the more I buy into the idea of him succeeding. He is miles off being the finished product, but If Klopp decided he wanted a 9, I do think Núñez is the best bet - but it is a bet. How Klopp uses him and how he integrates into the team will be one of the most intriguing stories of the coming season.