Dissecting Darwin Nunez: From his Liverpool toils to thriving as Uruguay's front man

Darwin Nunez endured a torrid time at the end of the Jurgen Klopp era at Liverpool.

The Uruguay international striker lost his way — and his place in the team — as he scored just once in his final 13 appearances of last season. He only started one of the last seven of those matches.

Debate raged among those looking in from the outside over whether it was time for Liverpool to move Nunez on just two years after his arrival from Benfica of Portugal in a deal potentially worth a club record €100million (£84.6m/$108.3m at current exchange rates), with add-ons. He has produced moments of brilliance among his 33 goals in 96 appearances across all competitions, but he has been erratic. Consistency has eluded him.

His frustration was clear in May, when he deleted Liverpool-related posts from his Instagram account and then did not applaud Klopp during the outgoing manager’s guard of honour at Anfield after the season finale against Wolves, a match in which he was a 71st-minute substitute.


Nunez came off the bench in Klopp’s final game as Liverpool manager (Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

However, Liverpool are not about to give up on Nunez, who turned 25 in late June.

Recent reports in Turkey linking him with a move to Istanbul’s Fenerbahce, now managed by Jose Mourinho, were emphatically dismissed. This pre-season is viewed as a fresh start for him at Liverpool, with new head coach Arne Slot committed to ironing out those rough edges in his game.

It’s one of the biggest challenges facing the Dutchman as he steps into Klopp’s enormous shoes, but he will have been warmed by the sight of Nunez regaining some confidence on international duty in recent weeks.

With goals in wins against Panama and Bolivia, he helped Uruguay top their group at the Copa America, setting up a mouthwatering quarter-final against Brazil on Saturday (early Sunday in the UK), a match where he is set to face Anfield team-mate Alisson in the opposition goal. Nunez is relishing his role as the focal point in coach Marcelo Bielsa’s 4-2-3-1 formation and has scored 10 times in his past eight matches for his country; although he has also missed more big chances (five) than any other player at the tournament.

Depending how far Uruguay go (the Copa’s final is a week on Sunday; early Monday in the UK), it will be late July or early August before he returns to the club’s Kirkby training base, and there will be plenty for Slot and his staff to work on with Nunez as they try to ensure he realises his full potential.

Here, The Athletic looks at what areas the forward needs to improve.


Finishing

Over his two seasons in the Premier League, Nunez has scored 20 league goals in 65 appearances — considerably fewer than his xG (expected goals) number of 27.9.

No striker with over 900 minutes of playing time had more shots per 90 minutes than Nunez (4.75) in the top flight in 2023-24, but too often decision-making let him down and gilt-edged chances went begging. His shot conversion rate for Liverpool in all competitions is 11.7 per cent. In contrast, for Uruguay, he converts 23.2 per cent of his attempts.

Darwin Nunez – club and country comp

Darwin Nunez Uruguay (per90) Liverpool (per90)

Appearances

26

96

Starts

19

59

Minutes

1737

5393

Goals

0.7

0.6

Assists

0.1

0.3

Goals+Assists

0.8

0.8

Shots

2.9

4.7

Shots on target

1.4

2.1

Chances created

0.6

1.5

Touches

36.4

37.2

Touches in opp box

6.6

9.1

Shot conversion rate (%)

23.2

11.7

Duels

13.3

10.9

Duels Won

5.4

4.1

Duel Success (%)

41

37.6

Former Liverpool striker John Aldridge, who scored 63 goals in 104 appearances for the club in the late 1980s, says: “Pressure built up on Darwin last season as the goals dried up, and you could see he was struggling. It weighed heavily on his shoulders and he lost some belief.

“Too often when he gets into great positions, he just blasts it. You need that calmness and composure. A lot of my finishes were side-footed and it was the same with Ian Rush (Liverpool’s record scorer with 346) and Robbie Fowler (seventh on the list with 183). You need to find the corners and not give goalkeepers the chance to make a save.

“Darwin is capable of the spectacular. The finish against Brentford when he lifted the ball over the ’keeper was ridiculously good. So, too, was the goal he scored away to Bournemouth. He’s proved he got that in his locker. The two hard and low finishes to win the game away to Newcastle were special, but he misses too many easy chances.

“That’s what needs to change for him to go to the next level.”


Nunez contrives to miss from close range against Luton (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Aldridge believes Liverpool are right to persevere with Nunez.

“When he comes back from the Copa America, he will have a new manager to work with — new voices, new ideas, new training drills,” he says.

“Slot might just trigger something inside him. Darwin has got so many qualities you’d look for in a top centre-forward, including pace and power. He can be a nightmare for defenders, but he has to punish teams by being more clinical.”


Movement

His team-mates talk about his speed and some of the best strikers the Premier League has seen, including its record goalscorer Alan Shearer, have talked up Nunez’s work ethic and desire to keep getting into goalscoring positions.

Yet, in the Premier League last season, he was offside (33) more times than any other player – despite only starting 22 out of 38 league matches. Nicolas Jackson of Chelsea was next on the list having been flagged offside 28 times.

“Nunez is quick, he gets himself in so many great positions and doesn’t have to be offside as many times as he is, because of his electric pace,” said Shearer, who scored 260 Premier League goals for Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United, and 23 more for Southampton when the English top flight was still called the First Division. “If he just waited, just be a little bit more patient for a second or so, then he would get in so many other times as well.”


An anguished Nunez is caught offside against Aston Villa (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

Former Liverpool striker David Fairclough, who scored 55 goals in 154 appearances in all competitions for the club between 1975 and 1983, believes some small tweaks to Nunez’s game would lead to major benefits.

“Getting caught offside so much is something Nunez has to work on,” he said. “A lot of the time it’s unnecessary and I’m sure Slot and his staff will address it on the training pitch.

“It’s about awareness and timing. He’s at his best when he’s on the shoulder of the last defender, looking to burst in behind, but he doesn’t always have to be right on the edge. Pull it back a yard. It’s a case of being more mindful.

“In general he’s very good at finding space, especially in that left channel between the full-back and the centre-back. Look at his goal for Uruguay against Bolivia at the Copa America. A sweeping counter-attack, he timed his run perfectly and then it was an emphatic first-time finish. He’s much better at them, rather than when he has a lot of time to think about it.

“To get 18 goals for Liverpool in all competitions last season wasn’t bad, but that number could have been so much higher. Next season is huge for him and he needs to iron out a few things. You let defenders off the hook when you don’t stay onside.”


Link-up play

Coaches with experience of working specifically with strikers say Nunez’s hold-up play improved considerably last season. Backing that theory up are the 13 assists he made during it — second-most of any Liverpool player behind Mohamed Salah’s 14; the relationship he has forged in setting up goals for his Egyptian team-mate is clear.

As the graphs show below, Nunez does more of his work for Liverpool in deeper positions than when he’s in a Uruguay shirt.

There’s also more of an emphasis on him creating as well as scoring.

The regular chanting of his name from Liverpool supporters is also a clear sign of how they appreciate his tireless running and how, until the latter stages of last season, Nunez was starting to look like the powerful all-action striker who could justify such a big fee.

It is his finishing, as so many observers can see, that simply continues to let him down.

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Aerial ability and physicality

When Nunez coiled his body to flick Alexis Mac Allister’s cross into the Nottingham Forest net and score a stoppage-time winner in March, it looked so natural. Look at his physique and the 6ft 2in (187cm) South American seems like someone who could dominate aerially.

When he arrived from Benfica in summer 2022, his ability in the air was highlighted as one of his strengths. Yet that goal at the City Ground was only the sixth he’s scored with his head in a Liverpool shirt (there was another, on his debut in the 2022-23 Community Shield). They have been a rarity.

Last season, he made 21 headed goal attempts, excluding those that were blocked, in the Premier League. Only four were on target — including his goals against Burnley in February and Forest three weeks later (19 per cent). That is a poorer record than in 2022-23, when he put six of 14 headed attempts on target (43 per cent).


Nunez guides a header onto the Chelsea crossbar in January (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

With the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and Mac Allister as a quality supply line, you would expect plenty of excellent deliveries into the opposition box. But that has not been the case.

Last season in the Premier League, Liverpool only completed 80 crosses (not including set pieces) into the penalty area, down from 2022-23’s total of 85. It is not a massive drop from the 93 and 92 in 2019-20 and 2021-22 respectively, but the number of crosses attempted per 90 has dropped, too. Even in 2020-21 (82), Liverpool were still crossing at a higher rate than this past season.

Liverpool’s crossing production

Season Cross completed into box Crosses attempted (Per90)

2019-20

93

23.6

2020-21

82

22.7

2021-22

92

23.6

2022-23

85

21.0

2023-24

80

21.5

Alexander-Arnold’s positional change into midfield has no doubt had an effect. His seven attempted crosses per 90 last season was his lowest average since 2017-18, the year he established himself in Liverpool’s first team.

Nunez can use his physicality to bully defenders, either through his strength or his powerful running, but has not proven himself to be a reliable target man. Last season, he won only 38.2 per cent of his aerial duels (34 out of 89), according to fbref.com. And since the start of the 2019-20 season, with Liverpool, Benfica and Spain’s Almeria, his first European club, he has never won more than 43.5 per cent of them in a single campaign. 

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Psychology

Nunez will be aware of the numbers that count against him — the 47 “big chances” (defined by Opta as “a chance where the player should reasonably be expected to score”) he has missed since moving to the Premier League is a standout stat. Only Erling Haaland of Manchester City has more (62).

He is now consistent in his message, though, whenever he speaks publicly: he does not listen to feedback unless it is from those closest to him. Klopp said when he was in charge that his opinion of Nunez was the one that mattered, not those making judgments from outside, and that appears to have made a difference — at least in the player’s own mind.

“I never look at the negative comments on social media,” Nunez said in May. “At least now I’m not looking at anything, not even the good stuff. Before, I did look at them a lot and it affected me. Whoever says that those negative comments do not affect them is lying — those negative comments that are directed towards you will always affect you.”


Nunez has thrived at this summer’s Copa America (Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Nunez hasn’t conducted many interviews in English as he’s still getting used to the language and it is clear he is more at ease back in Uruguay when discussing his career.

“I feel like my home is when I am in the national team,” he has said. “That’s when you get together with your people, you can talk to everyone, and you feel comfortable. Every time I go to the national team, I feel like I am at home.”

Sports psychologists consulted for this article suggested listening to the right type of feedback can be helpful but, as Nunez suggests, too much is damaging.

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They also said walking through the chance-conversion stage in slow motion can help build belief, and recommended working on breathing techniques, developing a pre-game routine, and even writing down a word or single letter in advance of kick-off to remind himself of something he has to do during the match.

Little tips, perhaps, but fine-tuning that could make a significant difference.

Additional reporting: Andy Jones

(Top photo: Michael Pimentel/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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