He’s surely the most divisive player Liverpool have ever had.
Has there ever been somebody who many claim to be on the cusp of world-class status while others lament as a terrible finisher and brainless footballer?
Darwin Nunez causes more arguments between Liverpool fans than anybody else. Is he better than Cody Gakpo? Why does he miss so many chances? Does he make us a better team? Will he learn to finish? WHY CAN’T HE FINISH?!
My answers to these questions change every time I see him. I see his ridiculous pace and his newfound ability to press and get giddy at his potential, before looking around confused as he fires another one-on-one opportunity straight into the keeper.
I used to be very much of the opinion that the goals would come. He was simply getting into too many good positions for them not to! But this season he’s missed 14 big chances already. That’s a monumental number. Although the rest of his game has improved, his inability to beat the keeper (and not just slam the woodwork) is if anything, heightened. Will he start scoring? I really, really hope so. Is he still an asset when he isn’t scoring? Maybe.
Nunez hasn’t scored in seven games now. In all competitions this season he’s played 1106 minutes. So, he’s scoring a goal every 158 minutes; just over one per game and a half. It’s not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but much of the frustration comes because it could be so, so much more. His potential is higher than Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota or Cody Gakpo because of his ludicrous physical traits and his ability to get into goalscoring positions. It’s no exaggeration to suggest he could score the same number of goals Erling Haaland does if he was sharper in front of goal.
Remember our 1-1 draw with Luton the other week. Within the first 25 minutes, Nunez had five decent attempts on goal. Long-range shots, a one-on-one which hit the bar and some good, unlucky efforts that were blocked on their way to the goal…
(He does seem like an unlucky finisher. He doesn’t get ones off his backside or the tap-ins that just fall to him in the box after a mistake elsewhere…)
But he didn’t score. Then in the second-half, his output dropped after running himself into the ground and he missed an open goal that would have won us the game. Those moments matter when you’re in a title race. Those are the moments his naysayers focus on, while those who trust his capacity for greatness try to see it in a positive light. He got in the right position! He’ll get the next one!
Nunez is still making things happen even though his goals have dried up. He’s got five assists in the Premier League and one in Europe. Only Leon Bailey, Haaland and Salah have a better goal/assist ratio to minutes played in the Premier League this season. His assist for Dom Szoboszlai on Wednesday evening versus Sheffield United was interestingly his first for Liverpool that didn’t end in a Mo Salah goal!
And it’s interesting mentioning the Egyptian. Salah is better when Nunez is on the field, because Nunez’s pace unlocks Salah’s passing. Gakpo doesn’t run in behind so Salah’s vision and through-balls are wasted. Salah isn’t fast anymore. If you watch carefully, he’s actually dramatically lost his speed, but he’s still exceptional due to his technique, football-brain and spark in the box. Salah was awful last night and the fact Nunez wasn’t buzzing around him, making runs off the ball and pulling defenders out of the way, contributed to that.
There was a time when Salah needed a deep-lying forward who enabled him to cut inside and run beyond. But he doesn’t do that very much anymore. He makes less runs and beelines for the penalty box more sporadically. He’s better when he’s up close to Nunez in something that almost resembles a 4-4-2, in fact.
You can never have a fair debate about Nunez. Those who love him are extraordinarily biased and the desperation to see him make it clouds fair judgement. The exact same can be said about those who don’t like him.
Here’s my truth. Even without goals, he makes us a better team right now. His running, tenacity and sheer madness makes us more vibrant offensively. He might well cost us though unless he sorts out his finishing. Nunez needs a goal, badly. Hopefully, when one goes in, a host will follow. He probably has the rest of this season to prove it.