In defence of Darwin Núñez, who will come good for Liverpool
one of the worst things a player can do is move to the Premier League for a hefty fee. Players can’t dictate the amount their clubs spend on them, but the scrutiny and judgment a player receives before they have even kicked a ball for their new club is magnified when their price tag is large. Just ask Darwin Núñez.
He has been under pressure since his £85m move to Liverpool in the summer and his task was made even harder by the arrival of another big-name striker in Erling Haaland. From the moment everyone knew they would be playing for what were the two best teams in the country at the time, the comparisons were set; this would be the showdown of the season. Núñez struck first, coming off the bench to score his first goal for Liverpool as they beat Manchester City 3-1 in the Community Shield. Haaland, on the other hand, was already being questioned after an open-goal miss.
Núñez’s quick start, however, was soon overrun by Haaland and the landscape is now very different. While Haaland has been unable to find the net in his last three appearances, he has still managed to score 27 goals for City this season, 21 of which have come in the Premier League. That would be enough to win the Golden Boot in some seasons. Núñez has not kept the same pace, scoring only 10 goals for Liverpool so far, with five of them in the league.
Comparing anyone to Haaland and his unbelievable scoring record is harsh, especially given that his closest competitor in the race for the Golden Boot – Harry Kane – is six behind. Haaland is scoring at a rate of 1.35 goals per game in the league, a preposterous level that no one has ever maintained in the Premier League era.
Even if the Haaland comparison is too much, Liverpool fans might suggest they have reasons to be concerned about Núñez given that he was signed for a hefty fee to help the team compete with City, but Liverpool now find themselves closer to the bottom of the league table, in terms of points, than the top. However, when you look at the numbers closely, Núñez has not actually performed that badly, particularly for a 23-year-old with only six months of experience in English football.
Even his goal tally is not that bad. He has scored 10 goals in his first 23 appearances for Liverpool, which is more than Sadio Mané, Michael Owen and Luis Suárez managed (all nine); and it’s worth remembering that Roberto Firmino only scored one goal in his first 23 appearances for the club. He turned out just fine, even finishing as Liverpool’s top scorer in his first season at the club.
Picking up a red card in his second league game for Liverpool did not set a great tone for the narrative but, after returning from his suspension, Núñez has played quite well. His five goals in the league this season averages out to 0.5 goals per 90 minutes, which is the joint-fifth highest of players with more than 500 minutes on the pitch. He has also scored three goals in the Champions League, giving him one of the best goals-per-minute returns in the competition, averaging a goal every 93.3 minutes.
Liverpool are struggling this season, down in ninth after defeats to Brentford and Brighton, but they are still creating chances. They have a better goal difference than Manchester United; only Manchester City (54) have created more big chances than Jürgen Klopp’s side (49); and only City (398) have taken more shots than Liverpool (370).
Liverpool are not scoring enough chances and Núñez is partly responsible. He has missed 15 big chances, more than any other player in the league, but every prolific striker misses chances. Mohamed Salah, Ivan Toney and Haaland, all prolific goalscorers, have all missed 12 big chances each, with Gabriel Jesus (11) and Aleksandar Mitrovic (nine) not far behind.
What that says about Núñez is he’s doing everything right in his buildup play: getting into the right positions, making the right runs and finding the right spaces. He just needs to sharpen up his finishing, which is something that can be worked on given his age. He is touching the ball in the opposition box every 9.6 minutes, which only Gabriel Jesus (who has a touch in the opposition box every 8.6 minutes) can better this season. Núñez is hard to mark and, despite his lack of goals, he is not avoiding the penalty area due to a lack of confidence. He remains the focal point of the attack and the goals will come. He also has two assists to his name in the league this season.
Núñez is eager to make things happen. Only Mitrovic (4.5) averages more shots per game than Núñez (4.2) in the league this season, and only Haaland (2) and Harry Kane (1.9) are hitting more shots on target per game than Núñez (1.5). Again, Núñez is doing the right things but isn’t having much luck. His conversion rate is poor – he is scoring with only 9.1% of his shots – but, once he sorts out that one problem, he will be fine.
Away from his finishing, he clearly gives defenders nightmares, particularly due to his runs in behind and from wider areas. His inexperience is still showing – he has been caught offside 11 times – but he can work on this and time his runs better. And again, just like the big-chances missed metric, he is joined by top strikers in the league, with Toney (16) and Callum Wilson (12) caught offside even more often.
Núñez has all the attributes a striker needs. He makes good runs, gets in the right positions, fires off plenty of shots and is a presence in the opposition box. He does not yet have the goals to show for his overall play but, ultimately, he’s not doing a lot wrong. He is 23 and is playing in a new league for a team that is struggling. He has proven before that he can score goals and, once he finds his stride, he will be unstoppable. That £85m fee may even prove a bargain.