Can the Uruguayan phenom fill the big shoes he has been given?
Man, this summer transfer window is going crazy, huh?
Liverpool have seen Manchester City’s acquisition of Erling Håland and decided that they needed to make a move of that level, and boy have they. The Reds have gone out and made a deal to sign prodigal Uruguayan striker Darwin Núñez from Benfica in a deal worth an initial €75 million (£64 million) with add ons potentially taking the deal up to a whopping €100 million (£85 million), which would be a record fee for a Liverpool player. Darwin’s move was one of the big potential dominos to fall in the summer window, with many top clubs around the world lining up for the chance to sign him, and it was the Champions League runners up who ended up sealing the deal.
So who is Darwin Núñez? Why was he so sought after? How does he fit in at Liverpool and what does this signing mean for Jürgen Klopp’s side? We are here to answer those questions.
Darwin’s 26 goals in 28 league games (34 goals in 41 games in all competitions) for Benfica this season is certainly what launched his “wonderkid” status, but it was a long road to get here. He was a product of the famed academy of Uruguayan giants Club Atlético Peñarol, but despite not fully setting the world alight in Uruguay, he was able to earn a brief move to Spanish second division side Almería before spending two years at European giants Benfica. His €24 million move to Benfica remains a record outgoing transfer for the Spanish second division as well as Benfica’s record purchase, so he really is a record breaker in many different ways.
Darwin was most often deployed either as one of two strikers in a 4-4-2 system or either as the lone striker or wide forward in a 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1 system, largely dependent on how Benfica changed systems and personnel during the tenures of Jorge Jesus and Nélson Veríssimo. So to a certain extent he is truly tactically flexible, but there are certain characteristics that dictate his game. Darwin is very much your typical pressing forward, a player who plays with intensity and energy when in possession and out of possession. His physical characteristics will be what immediately catches your eye, as the 6’2″ Uruguayan brings a combination of lightning pace, balance, and strength to the equation. This allows him to be equally threatening when running off the back shoulder of a defender, in a one-vs-one situation against a fullback, or when trying to meet a cross in the box.
Many times, he chooses to drift away from a central position to find an ideal lane to attack. This is usually moving toward the left wing, where he is both able to observe the defensive line to ensure his runs in behind are timed well/not offside as well as set himself up in a physical mismatch against a smaller fullback. This tendency is why he was very effective as a wide forward under Jorge Jesus and can be most exemplified by his first goal against Barcelona in SLB’s famous 3-0 win over the Catalans earlier this season. His wider starting position allowed him to time his run in behind perfectly and left him in a one-on-one against Eric García who, despite being a center back, is not a very physical player and is not a strong individual defender. García could not stop Darwin’s attack, and after a simple move to beat the Spaniard and despite a loose touch that almost killed the move, Darwin was able to finish well past ter Stegen and fire Benfica into a lead that they would not surrender. This tendency was also later reinforced under Nélson Veríssimo, with Benfica playing in a sort of 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 which allowed Darwin to partner with Gonçalo Ramos up top as a strike partner.
The deficiency to his game, however, might end up being an issue. Darwin, despite his physical capabilities, is not a target man forward. He is not the type of player who can hold up play, operate with the ball at his feet, or occupy center backs to open up space for others. He is very much someone who wants to run and get in behind defenders, and that is not a mold of a center forward that we have seen in Klopp’s Liverpool. Despite all of the criticism that Roberto Firmino received, he was very effective in that system in both triggering the press and opening up space for Mané and Salah when operating as a false nine. Diogo Jota is closer to Darwin’s mold than Firmino’s, but he is still a player who has learned how to operate within space and open up lanes for his teammates. Darwin is not that, he wants to operate in the half space and he wants to operate off the back shoulder of the defenders.
This begs an interesting question of numbers. Darwin wants to operate in similar spaces and on the same wing down which Andrew Robertson and Luis Díaz effectively attack. This could lead to a situation where one wing becomes too crowded, with each of them getting in each other’s way, but also a situation where Salah can become isolated on that right side. It also leaves a rather large space in the middle of the pitch completely unoccupied, as Liverpool’s midfielders do not tend to operate in the central “number 10” sort of area and they no longer have a center forward operating in those spaces. This could either be a good thing, creating an effective left-sided overload that makes Liverpool more difficult to deal with, or a bad thing, suffocating the Liverpool attack down one wing and limiting the effectiveness of the team attacking through the middle or down the right. This also inherently presents an opportunity for Harvey Elliot or Fabio Carvalho in that midfield space left open, but that is still an unknown added to this equation.
You can also look at this as a question of the set up as a whole. Liverpool’s choice of operation is very clear: they will play with high intensity in your face at a million miles per hour and pummel you into oblivion if you allow them the time and space to do so. Darwin plays into that desire, being someone who plays with great intensity, presses very aggressively, and operates best when he can get out and run. But when teams put players behind the ball and force Liverpool to break them down, a method that has been very effective against Liverpool recently and has notably drawn Klopp’s ire in hilarious fashion, Darwin does not necessarily offer much in the way of solutions. As we discussed previously, Darwin is not a strong player with the ball at his feet. Despite his 6’2″ frame being ideal for a target man, he is not all that good at holding up play, opening up space, and bringing teammates into the move, and his first touch can be lacking at times. It is possible that this could lead to issues.
Darwin is very young, however. He is certainly not the finished article and he will certainly evolve and grow as a player as he continues to develop and mold into what Liverpool want him to be. It will be very beneficial that he will arrive at Liverpool and quite possibly not be the set starter, as it would not be surprising for the Liverpool front three to start the season being Díaz-Jota-Salah. There will be serious expectation, however. A player does not move for a record fee without some high expectations being on him, especially when that player arrives in the wake of a departure of a player like Sadio Mané (or like João Félix at Benfica). The pressure was on at Benfica and the pressure will be on here as well. It will be a mental test for Darwin, who lest we forget was playing in the Spanish second division two years ago. This is a meteoric rise.
The comparisons between Darwin and Erling Håland will also be made, which is largely unfair to Darwin because Håland is a much more established and proven and, quite frankly, better player at this stage of their respective careers. This is not to knock Darwin, who I think is very talented, but it is worth noting that his 31 goals in all competitions for Benfica last season came on a xG of around 19, which is quite a significant difference. Sure, stats like xG are not the end all of football analysis, but it is very much within the realm of possibility that Darwin’s season last year was an outlier and the player who had finishing issues for Benfica prior to last year re-emerges. This is going to be compared to Håland, a player who has shown for multiple teams in multiple situations both domestically and in Europe that he is a top talent and top player in his position, already being the player that Liverpool would like Darwin to end up as. We have seen the “Messi and Ronaldo” comparisons drag down the careers of so many promising young players, and it is possible that this pressure has an impact.
These risks have to be taken on board and understood, and I think Liverpool as a club do understand this. Darwin is a project, a player with a high potential that they wish to mold and develop. They do not expect him to be Håland but simply be a player that they will reap the rewards of in a few years, and especially one that can be impactful in moments when they need to rotate their team. Patience is going to be required. Sure, this is a substantial amount of money for a player, especially one that requires this level of patience and support, but this is where the Liverpool project finds itself at the moment. Liverpool are one of the best and richest teams in the world, and any improvement on this team in its present form is likely going to be marginal unless a true Mbappé/Lewandowski/Håland level talent joins them. And any improvement in this current market, especially when the target is a young and promising player with many other suitors, is going to cost quite a bit of money, and it would still be beneficial for this player to be on your team rather than being impactful for a direct rival. This is simply the game Liverpool has to play.
Liverpool have their man, and the massive dominos of this summer window continue to fall. Darwin Núñez has arrived in the Premier League with heavy expectations and a hefty price tag to go along with it, passing through the door just as Sadio Mané walks out of Melwood for the final time. Will he succeed? Only time will tell.
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