Liverpool’s next manager will have a decision to make over the future of Darwin Núñez, with some fans wondering if the Uruguayan is the right player to lead their line.

Ahead of a summer of upheaval at Anfield, Liverpool could really do with as much calm and continuity as possible.

With Jürgen Klopp leaving and doubts over what to do with Mohamed Salah as he is soon to enter the final year of his contract and his 33rd year, there are some huge decisions for the club to make.

There is also a decision to be made regarding Darwin Núñez. The Uruguayan has largely been a success since signing for Liverpool, popping up with some crucial goals in key moments and winning the hearts of the Kop with his maker-of-chaos approach to centre-forward play.

But he has been rather too patchy, inconsistent and unreliable for many others’ liking. That lack of reliability – particularly in front of goal – has come into sharp focus in the latter part of this season as Liverpool’s form stuttered, and with it their hopes of giving Klopp a dream send-off with a quadruple were obliterated. Liverpool fell away in the title race, were knocked out of the FA Cup by an out-of-sorts Manchester United, and lost to Atalanta, Serie A’s fifth-best team, in the Europa League quarter-finals.

Front and centre of the season falling apart was a concerning profligacy in front of goal, with Núñez as guilty as anyone.

At Liverpool, he has always been someone who scores goals through high-quantity chance generation rather than high-quality finishing, and his 26-goal final season at Benfica – which convinced Liverpool to splash £85 million on him – is starting to look like something of an outlier in his career.

That year, Núñez’s 26 goals came from 85 shots. Last season – his first at Liverpool – he scored nine Premier League goals from 84 shots; this season, he has 11 from 106.

Recently, there have been glaring and costly misses in big moments that have only served to highlight that he is no elite finisher. The shot he ploughed straight into Jordan Pickford at 1-0 down in the Merseyside derby last month when it appeared a simple enough task to score will live long in the memory. Liverpool went on to lose that game, and that defeat effectively ended their title hopes.

darwin nunez miss vs everton

In his defence, Núñez is clearly lacking in confidence at the moment, and what he’s going through could simply be called a poor run of form. The only goal he has scored in his last 681 minutes of competitive action came in a 3-1 home win over a Sheffield United side with the worst defence in Premier League history.

That followed a period in which he scored nine times in 595 minutes in the first two months of the year. That’s a goal every 66 minutes in January and February before he went on a run in which he managed just one in more than 11 hours. An in-form Núñez might well have put that chance against Everton past Pickford.

There are, nonetheless, legitimate concerns that an £85m centre-forward at an elite club like Liverpool shouldn’t have these dry spells, and may not be able to succeed at the level Liverpool need given he is a below-average finisher. Over his time at Anfield, Núñez’s 20 Premier League goals have come from 190 shots and 28.3 expected goals – an underperformance compared to his xG of 8.3.

darwin nunex xg map Liverpool Premier League

Across all competitions, his record is even worse, with his 33 goals coming from 280 shots and 43.4 xG – an underperformance of 10.4 despite playing plenty of lesser teams in the domestic cup competitions and this season’s Europa League.

darwin nunex xg map Liverpool all comps

Núñez’s way of getting around any weakness in his finishing is to get into goalscoring positions more often than most other forwards. He averages more shots per 90 minutes than any other player in the Premier League this season (minimum 1,000 minutes played), with 4.7, and he ranks second for non-penalty xG per 90 (0.69), behind Erling Haaland (0.81).

It speaks volumes about his finishing ability, though, that he drops to 16th for non-penalty goals per 90, with 0.49.

But this is all part of the joy of Núñez. Having a chaos-maker in the final third breeds action close to goal, and while he might not finish enough of his chances, his movement creates space for others and he constantly occupies defenders. He is a real physical presence and aerial threat, meaning he can provide an out ball for his team’s defenders to play direct balls up field, and he can also be a target for crosses into the box.

He is also quick and likes to run in behind, meaning he constantly gives defenders a headache. He could admittedly work on the timing of his runs – he has been caught offside more times per 90 (0.9) than anyone else in the Premier League this season – but that is a relatively easy fix, at least compared to improving his finishing, for example.

Núñez’s game isn’t just about how much he threatens goal, either. With eight assists this season, he ranks 13th in the Premier League, while only six players can better his assists-per-90 rate of 0.36.

Five of his assists have been for Salah goals, making that combination the joint-most fruitful in the top flight in 2023-24, alongside Anthony Elanga to Chris Wood. There is potential that sticking by Núñez could help bring out the best in Salah for a few more years.

He has bags of energy and his constant movement means his opponents always have something to think about. He is relentless with his running, harrying and pressing, which only adds to the chaos he causes. With 15.8 pressures in the final third per 90 this season and 2.6 of those pressures resulting in a turnover, he ranks among the Premier League’s best in both categories.

The soon-to-be-named new Liverpool manager, Arne Slot, likes his team to press high and win the ball back close to goal, and he could do worse than having Núñez as his centre-forward. Only Manchester City have won the ball back within 40m of the opposition’s goal more times (377) in Premier League games this season than Liverpool (373), and Núñez has been key to that.

liverpool high turnovers

The dilemma for Slot to weigh up is whether unpredictability and high chance generation is what he wants from his number nine, when others might prefer more control and a little more reliability in front of goal.

Giving the ball away isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it often indicates that a player is willing to take risks to create chances, but it might be considered a concern that 31% of Núñez’s on-ball actions have resulted in possession being given to the opposition. Of all players at teams in the current top six, only Tottenham’s Richarlison (33%) gives the ball away more often.

Núñez divides opinion, and there has to be an improvement in his goal return if he is to make his move to Liverpool a success. One trophy – this year’s EFL Cup – since he joined isn’t enough for a club like that, and 33 goals from 280 shots isn’t enough either.

But there’s no doubt there’s a very good player in there who could become a 20-goal-a-season striker with a bit of fine-tuning to his game. If Liverpool decide to head into this new era with him up top, it is guaranteed to be entertaining, at least.

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