It was a rocky first season for Darwin Núñez at Liverpool, but the Uruguayan striker is starting to become a crucial part of Jürgen Klopp’s system.
Darwin Núñez already had a goal to his name in Liverpool’s UEFA Europa League group stage match with Ligue 1 side Toulouse when he was played through on goal by Diogo Jota in the 65th minute at Anfield. After skilfully evading the sliding tackle of defender Rasmus Nicolaisen, he also rounded goalkeeper Guillaume Restes before, somehow, his shot hit the post.
Núñez sank to his knees, glancing back briefly to see Ryan Gravenberch dispatch the rebound that at least meant his miss wasn’t costly.
Last season, a miss that egregious – it had an expected goals (xG) value of 0.85 – would have almost guaranteed that Núñez, who had been suffering from a visible lack of confidence, would dwell on it and perhaps take it into the next game.
However, this year’s Núñez feels different. He started the Premier League game against Nottingham Forest just three days later and put in one of his best all-round performances in a Liverpool shirt, with his shot leading to Jota’s opener, before he made it 2-0 with what was his sixth goal of the season. The confidence coursing through his veins was particularly evident just before half-time when he addressed a bouncing ball in the penalty area by attempting an overhead kick that only just zipped over the bar.
Chants of “Núñez!” rained down from The Kop, but that had also been the case when the Uruguayan inexplicably missed against Toulouse. The Liverpool fans love Núñez, and not just because he’s ‘chaotic’, but because of his increasing importance to Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool 2.0. He added another goal on Wednesday night as he came off the bench to score a fantastic winner against Bournemouth in the EFL Cup, which had an xG of 0.03.
His lack of confidence last season was not helped by a number of factors; getting sent off on his home debut against Crystal Palace, receiving heavy criticism on social media, while it couldn’t have been easy coming into a Liverpool team that looked a shadow of their former selves.
Klopp acknowledged this in a press conference before Liverpool’s trip to Arsenal just over a year ago, saying: “I think [Núñez] said himself he feels the pressure. He has to calm himself down. You can see the movements are exceptional and if you would see him finishing in training you would think, ‘My God.’ But in the games obviously then [he’s] a bit in a rush. He needs to calm down just in the moment to use his full range of finishing… as a striker you just have to feel that. Then it will go from there. So, not to change, just to keep going actually.”
Núñez did keep going and while he was unable to find steady consistency in his first season after a big-money move from Benfica, he still finished the campaign with a respectable 15 goals in all competitions.
He was often a pain for defenders, but his contributions were regularly described as bringing “chaos” to games. It probably wasn’t meant as a backhanded compliment, but it was certainly not what he was signed for.
There remained hope he would improve further, though, as he did in Portugal. He spent two seasons with Benfica, scoring 14 goals in the first before exploding with 34 in the second. The early signs from the 2023-24 campaign suggest that Núñez is indeed improving, but not only in his goal output.
Klopp didn’t always select him last season, with January signing Cody Gakpo often preferred as the central attacker after arriving from PSV Eindhoven, but the manager insisted his belief in Núñez was unwavering, the belief that convinced him to make the 24-year-old potentially the club’s record signing with add-ons in the summer of 2022.
Núñez had to make do with a place on the bench early on in the 2023-24 campaign, but it was coming off the bench where many felt he had the moment (or moments) that could have signalled his rise to the next level. His arrival as a sub against Newcastle United at St James’ Park with his team a goal and a man down turned things around remarkably, with two ruthless finishes earning Liverpool an unlikely and dramatic 2-1 win.
His first campaign at Anfield saw Núñez utilised off the left for almost 40% of his game time in the league, which brought some joy as he had a bit more space to work in, but Klopp always maintained he was signed to be his number nine, and that appears to now be the case as he has played all of his minutes so far this season through the middle.
A change in situation at international level may also have helped the player, with Marcelo Bielsa becoming the manager of the Uruguay national team in May. Núñez revealed earlier this season that the former Leeds United boss has already spoken to him about things he could do better as a striker, especially around the timing and direction of his off-the-ball runs. They seemed to be producing results as he played a key role in wins over Colombia and Brazil during the last international break, scoring in both.
That form has also been on show for Liverpool as they have started the season strongly, collecting 23 points from their first 10 games in the Premier League and winning all three of their Europa League group games. If Núñez was hampered by arriving into an underperforming team, then he appears to be thriving in a much-improved one this season.
In terms of comparisons, we’ll just look at his Premier League output given his European appearances last season were in the UEFA Champions League, so in theory he was facing stronger opposition than he has been this season in the Europa League. Núñez has played 419 minutes in the Premier League so far this season, approximately a quarter of the 1,699 he played last season.
As far as league goals go, he was averaging 0.48 goals per 90 minutes in 2022-23, which has risen sharply to 0.86 in 2023-24. It’s not necessarily just his finishing that has improved either, he’s also somehow increasing the volume of shots he is taking. His average of 4.4 shots per 90 last season was the most of any Premier League player to attempt at least 15 shots overall. He has managed to increase that to 4.9 per 90 so far this season (only Ansu Fati has more with 5.2), while his big chances per 90 have gone up from 1.43 to 2.15, and his xG per 90 has gone up from 0.64 to 0.84.
It’s not just about goal or goal threat, though. In fact, when measuring his increasing influence on this Liverpool team, it might not even be the main factor.
Last season, Núñez recorded three assists in the Premier League. This season, in a quarter of the playing time, he has already equalled that. The former Almería striker is undoubtedly getting more involved in the play and is using the ball better when he does have it. That was particularly evident against Forest on Sunday, when his 34 touches were neatly spread out from left to right, albeit almost entirely in the opposition half, as he looked to link up with teammates as well as getting on the end of chances himself.
His average touches per 90 have gone up from 36.7 to 41.5, while his passing accuracy has increased from 67.1% to 75.7%. That perhaps shows why comparisons to Erling Haaland when they both arrived in the Premier League at the same time were so misplaced. Not only is it unfair to compare anyone to an absolute anomaly of goal output as Haaland, but despite also having a strong frame and moving to an English giant for big money, Núñez does not play for Liverpool the same way Haaland does for Manchester City.
The Norwegian very effectively stays at the front and waits for the ball to arrive to finish chances or provide assists, as he did for Phil Foden against Manchester United on Sunday. To show how little Haaland sees of the ball, his average touches per 90 in the Premier League this season is just 22.0, almost half that of Núñez.
In terms of the Uruguayan’s creativity, he’s actually creating fewer chances per 90 than he was, down at 1.1 from last season’s 1.5, but those he is creating are of higher quality as he’s made 0.64 big chances per 90, up from 0.58 in 2022-23.
He is behind only Dominik Szoboszlai and Harvey Elliott for attacking sequence involvements per 90 in the Premier League for Liverpool, showing how important he is to the thrust of Klopp’s team. The majority of those come from his high shot volume, but his average involvement in the build-up to a shot is around the same level as fellow forwards Mohamed Salah, Gakpo and Jota.
His link-up with Salah seems to be getting better all the time; all eight of his assists in all competitions for Liverpool since joining have been served up to the Egyptian to finish. Against Toulouse and Nottingham Forest, it was evident that his partnership with Jota is also starting to blossom.
Núñez was signed to be front and centre of Liverpool 2.0, and despite a few bumps in the road early on, we are starting to see just how crucial his role could be over the next few years.
He may have had a reputation for chaos, but while he hasn’t reined that in entirely, he looks increasingly like a well-oiled cog in Klopp’s ever-evolving machine.