It’s been phenomenal to bear witness to the conveyor belt of goalscoring prowess that Uruguay have churned out over the past 35 years.
In the early ’90s there was Rubén Sosa. Lesser known than the legends who followed him, Sosa was a fine, diminutive, agile striker in his own right who notched nearly 90 goals during seven years in Serie A’s prime glory years.
Then came Álvaro Recoba. A man who hit a ball so sweetly that you’d be forgiven for thinking his left foot could conjure candy floss from his laces. A footballer so romantic that men in Milan in the late ’90s would be encouraged to propose to their girlfriends not with a ring, but with a VHS tape of Recoba’s best goals. The Inter man was infuriatingly inconsistent but incredibly talented.
At the turn of the century, the level went up in the shape of Diego Forlán. Though his Manchester United days were largely forgettable, his time in Spain was anything but, winning two Pichichis and a Europa League – netting two in the final. He was Uruguay’s first modern superstar.
A few years later, he would be eclipsed by a double-act from the city of Salta on the Uruguayan-Argentinian border in Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani. Two of the best strikers of their generation.
Forlán, Cavani and Suárez’s peaks never quite overlapped – Cavani and Suárez’s big moves to Napoli and Liverpool respectively came once Forlán had left European football – but they still enjoyed huge success together in a Uruguayan shirt. All three started in the infamous 2010 World Cup quarter-final against Ghana, and all three featured a year later as Uruguay powered to their first Copa America win in 16 years – both Forlán and Suárez scored in the final. Even three years later in the 2014 World Cup, all three featured in the group stage where they overcame Italy and England to make it to the last 16.
For a country with a population of just three and a half million (almost two million people fewer than Scotland), the talent that Uruguay generate on a consistent basis is astounding. And now, with Cavani and Suárez’s careers nearing an end, a new model of Uruguayan striker looks set to arrive off the conveyor belt.
All three of Uruguay’s striking legends of the 21st century have lobbied on behalf of Darwin Núñez.
Only months ago Cavani was reported to have told the United hierarchy to purchase his compatriot to replace him at Old Trafford, while Forlán also said a United move for Núñez would be “good for him and for the club”.
Suárez’s lobbying goes back much further. In 2020, when Núñez was at Almeria in Spain’s second tier, Suárez told Barca officials to sign him, “I told them, ‘pay attention to this one, he’s very good, he has very interesting things’,” he said. Barcelona reportedly tried to sign him too, but lost out to Benfica while at the peak of their financial crisis.
Since moving to Portugal, Núñez himself has never looked back. The 22-year-old has 48 goals in 85 games along with 15 assists. In 2021-22 alone he netted 34 goals in 41 games, including six in 10 Champions League appearances. Across Europe’s big five leagues and Portugal, only Robert Lewandowski (35), Kylian Mbappé (28), Karim Benzema (27) and Ciro Immobile (27) scored more league goals last season, and it’s this ferocious appetite for goals that has put Europe’s top clubs on high alert.
It’s a hunger noticeable with all of Uruguay’s recent star strikers. It’s not just their ability that makes them stand out, but also the intense desire to score which makes them so deadly. Cavani and Suárez in particular possess that in abundance, and it’s no surprise that Núñez recently said that the former is his idol. The matching headband is probably not a coincidence.
Like Suárez and Cavani, Núñez has deadly penalty-box instincts, magnificent movement and great power. That power is something that Núñez has had since making his breakthrough at 17 for Peñarol back in his homeland.
Some players gain that power and frame when they hit their early 20s and can sometimes struggle to maintain their technical ability as the extra weight becomes a burden. With Núñez though, he has already had five years of playing senior football with his current physical stature, and over the past couple of years with Benfica, you can see how refined his touch is becoming already.
Across the two Champions League appearances against Liverpool in April, he did look a bit untidy in this regard, sometimes struggling with his technique in tight spaces, especially upon physical contact, but that is a work in progress for Núñez.
His intelligence though, in knowing his role for the team, is something that can’t be questioned.
He can roll players with his strength if defenders get too tight, can lay off the ball with an intelligent first touch, and likes to drift wide to act as a creator on occasion using his impressive intuition to create chances for others. In the Primeira League this season he’s created 30 chances for team-mates and assisted four times.
He also has the ability to beat a man and has impressive acceleration which allows him to pull away from defenders if his touch stays true.
However, that ‘if’ is his drawback right now. Though he has the intelligence to do the right things when linking play, it’s his consistency with his touch that can desert him in high leverage situations.
Having said that, this is the only real side of Núñez’s game that lets him down. It’s something he must work on, especially when he moves to a league where he has less time on the ball, but it’s his qualities elsewhere are what excite most.
These qualities mostly relate to his ability in and around the penalty area. Though you need to be a great link man to be a top striker for a top team – something the Uruguayan will undoubtedly improve at – he can already make up for that area of weakness by doing what all great forwards do: score goals.
With a goal every 76 minutes for Benfica in the league last season, he led all forwards to play at least 1,000 minutes across Europe’s big five leagues and Portugal in this category. Just look at the players he’s beating.
When running in behind, Núñez is a menace. He has the positional intelligence to create perfect receiving angles from a through pass, and the pace and strength to steamroll his way towards the goal when the pass is played. Núñez’s sharp movement and adept positioning gets him into great scoring positions.
Not only are the quality of his non-penalty chances high – 0.19 xG per shot – but he accumulates these chances at a very high rate. He averaged more non-penalty goals per 90 than any other player in the top six ranked European leagues in 2021-22 (1.00), while his 0.69 non-penalty xG per 90 was only bettered by four players.
Questions will remain as to whether he’ll be able to replicate those numbers in a more competitive league, but they are nonetheless very impressive.
Of players with 1000+ mins, Darwin Núñez’s ranking in 2021-22 across the top 6 Euro leagues in 2021-22 (🏴🇪🇸🇩🇪🇫🇷🇮🇹🇵🇹):— The Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) June 7, 2022
np Goals/90: 1.00 (1st)
np Shots/90: 3.7 (=16th)
np xG/90: 0.69 (5th)
He also had the highest conversion rate of all players with 55+ non-pen shots (27.2%). 🔥 pic.twitter.com/egpcS0LfZW
Once he gets into scoring positions, his finishing is exceptional. Núñez’s non-penalty shot conversation rate last season stood at 27.2% – none of the 162 players to attempt more than 55 shots from non-penalty situations across the top six European leagues in 2021-22 could match that. That rate of finishing unsurprisingly saw him overperform his expected goals tally by a lot – seven in total – more than any other striker in Europe. It’s unlikely he can maintain this rate, but it’s a clear indication that this elite level of scoring is in his locker.
As his goal map shows below, he is adept at finishing well with either foot, and is more than capable in the air too.
It’s a mix of composure and technique that makes Núñez impressive in front of goal. He has the patience to wait for the right moment to get his shot away and the ability to find the right spot and power to beat the goalkeeper. It’s a skillset that is reminiscent of his idol Cavani.
His ability in the air is something that has rapidly improved too. At 6-foot-2 and 80kg, Núñez matches up to most defenders physically and can outjump them to meet the ball first. His seven headed goals in all competitions were six more than he scored in 2020-21.
But more than that, Núñez’s overall ability is something that has rapidly improved, and his meteoric rise this season has been the main cause of the scepticism that surrounds him. On paper, his goalscoring record before this campaign is pretty average.
In 2020-21, Núñez scored just six league goals in 29 games and underperformed his xG by nearly four. He notched 16 goals in 32 games the season prior to that for Almería in LaLiga 2, but even that is a far from spectacular return. His international career has been slow to take off, too. For Uruguay U20s he netted just four times in 14 games while for the senior side he has just two in nine.
But all signs point to that fact we’re seeing the emergence of an enormous talent rather than witnessing a one-season wonder. Throughout 2020-21, Núñez played through physically-limiting knee pain dating back to an injury he suffered when was 18. In the summer, Núñez missed the Copa America to have knee surgery and has been a different player since.
He’s looked quicker and more agile, but he’s also benefitted from a more prominent role in the Benfica side and another year of adjusting with his team-mates and a new league. With his imposing frame, it’s easy to forget that he’s just 22 years old, a mere year older than Erling Haaland, another superstar young talent who’s already secured a huge transfer to Manchester City ahead of 2022-23.
Núñez had more league goals than Haaland last season. He had more Champions League goals than him too. Despite that, he’s not nearly as hyped.
There are reasons for that, of course. Haaland has performed consistently for three seasons now in a more competitive league, but it’s hard to argue that Núñez is all that far behind Haaland at this point. They also have strikingly similar qualities in terms of pace, power and finishing.
The price tags being floated about are similar too. It’s rumoured that Núñez has a £100m release clause on his head, and with a raft of Premier League clubs including Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle United and West Ham United all rumoured to be in for him, Núñez would not be a bad runners-up prize now Haaland is out of reach.
Jurgen Klopp praised the Uruguayan after Liverpool’s draw with Benfica at Anfield last week, saying he’s, “physically strong, quick, and calm with his finish when he finished the goal off. Good, really good. If he stays healthy, it’s a big career ahead of him.”
Liverpool of course signed a player from the Portuguese league in January who hit the ground running in no time at all. It’s worth noting that, like Núñez, Luis Díaz also scored just six goals in his first season in the Primeira Liga. Diaz scored just six in his second season too, but Núñez then grabbed 26 in his second campaign at Benfica. He’s also three years younger.
With the enormous price tag that’s being suggested, a Premier League move seems the most likely, and his qualities seem perfectly suited for the league. The fit is important, but Núñez has a lot of strings to his bow and isn’t necessarily a systems player.
In that regard again, he’s eerily similar to those 21st-century Uruguayan legends gone by: adaptable and intelligent if a little bit rugged.
Now with those two legends on the wane and with Sosa, Recoba, and Forlán all long gone, Uruguay themselves need a new star to step up to the plate.
In Darwin Núñez, they appear to have just the man.
*This article was originally published on April 21 and has been updated with correct data as of June 8.
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