Darwin Núñez On Track To Be World-Class Striker

Darwin Núñez On Track To Be World-Class Striker
July 22, 2022 Paul Tomkins

 

I don’t spend enough time on social media these days to even be aware, until yesterday, that there was some kind of lowlights video of a blister-strewn Darwin Núñez’s first two very brief cameos in an unfamiliar, under-strength, undercooked preseason Liverpool side, but it sounds like the kind of dickish thing you’d expect to exist.

Preseason is not about results, but obviously signs of encouragement are always welcome.

Most players in their careers will have more lowlights than highlights. You could make a compilation of Thiago Alcântara giving the ball away cheaply, even though he is the best passer in the Premier League. This, after all, the age of out-of-context snark.

The majority of shots do not result in goals; plenty go off target. Strikers often lose possession. And penetrative passes are hard to pull off. (Albeit the purveyors of these compilation clips are surely less well-versed in the penetrative arts but world-class experts in pulling off).

To miss a chance – even a sitter – is normal. To miscontrol a ball is normal. To score four goals as a sub, against a top German side, is not normal.

It doesn’t mean Núñez will now score 50 goals this season, but it bodes well; as does Mo Salah, so sharp in the first half, giving him the penalty duty to help break his duck. Had Núñez not scored any, it still wouldn’t have meant there was trouble ahead, as even now players are working hard at their fitness, and playing the games themselves when half-knackered.

RB Leipzig gradually weakened their XI while Núñez was on (especially after his second goal), but Liverpool also sent on a few teenagers. Those teenagers happened to play lovely football, and again, that bodes well.

Harvey Elliott remains a gem, Fabio Carvalho is like a faster, harder-pressing young Philippe Coutinho, and Stefan Bajcetic has looked a thoroughbred to me in the youth team these past 18 months, but at 17 I didn’t expect him to be making waves yet in the senior side, even if he’s a fairly strong and decent-sized kid; it’s almost always a position for stronger, older players, but he is such a good all-round player that he could genuinely be Fabinho’s heir apparent (albeit he is still clearly a kid, who hasn’t quite filled out yet). All three kids contributed to Núñez’s goals, with Carvalho and Elliott assisting, and Bajcetic’s clever high-pressing a key part of the hat-trick goal.

The leaps and bounds made by Núñez in his short career are indicative of a player hungry to learn, who works hard and takes his job seriously. That kind of attitude means further growth is likely, especially when moving to a better team. He moves, he takes a little time to settle, then he explodes.

He has to handle the pressure of the club’s history and the transfer fee, but he seems to have the right mentality. As such, a barren preseason would only ramp up the pressure piled on by dickheads, so to score four in one half will surely put him more at ease; even if there’s nothing quite like scoring your first proper goal, as Peter Crouch found, a whopping 24 hours into his pitch-time as a Liverpool player, in his 19th game.

Crouch’s second arrived mere minutes later (albeit the first was then changed to an own goal), and the long goalless streak was not indicative of a player who, while never prolific (his aim was to link aerially and on the deck), scored at a healthy rate of better than one every three games thereafter (and closer to one-in-two given that his 42 goals came in just 93 starts, with 40 from 77 after those first two goals, against Wigan in December 2005. He left to start more regularly, which was a shame.)

Go back just under a decade and another new Liverpool striker scored freely in preseason, then became a flop. But Iago Aspas, who struggled to adapt to life in England and wasn’t selected much in 2013/14 because of the undroppable nature of Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge (and perhaps Brendan Rodgers not actually wanting him), has subsequently scored 120+ in La Liga for unfashionable Celta Vigo, as well at a one-in-three rate for Spain; suggesting that, along with his leadership skills and work-rate, that he was a terrific player for whom the timing wasn’t right.

Two decades ago, El Hadji-Diouf started with two early goals, but his attitude stank, and he quickly tanked. Three decades ago, Nigel Clough started with two early goals, but he wasn’t what Liverpool needed. Fast starts don’t mean too much; the late Besian Idrizaj, then a teenager, scored a preseason hat-trick by the 27th minute in 2007, but it was against lowly Wrexham.

That same preseason, new buy Fernando Torres scored only one goal, against Shanghai Shenhua, and missed a penalty against Portsmouth.

Torres scored just three league goals for the Reds by the start of October, but kicked up a gear after a hat-trick against Reading in the League Cup. Even then, he still had only six league goals as of a few days before Christmas (and 12 in all competitions, with three of them in the Champions League). Having missed a preseason penalty against Portsmouth, he scored two against them on December 22nd, to hit top gear. After that brace, in the second half of the season he tripled his tallies, to end the season with 24 in the league, and 33 in all competitions.

Torres hit top gear aged 22/23, and prior to the age of 22, Alan Shearer was not very prolific at all, while Thierry Henry was a goal-shy winger at the same stage. Torres was an icon at Atlético (but 13 was his top non-penalty league tally), and Henry was a World Cup winner, but like Shearer, both only became elite world-class players around the age of 22. It has thus always struck me as the coming-of-age stage for a certain type of striker.

Players mature and thrive at different rates, but they were three of the very best, and all of a similar physique: 6’0″-6’2″, and expected to do all kinds of things as a central striker beyond score goals.

Small young sprinters used to blossom earlier, but the all-round centre-forwards often seem to come of age at 22/23. And even wide players of a similar stature can follow the same path.

Even Cristiano Ronaldo, a skinny clever winger as a teen, only hit double figures in the league for the first time in 2006/07, when aged 21-22, and in the process doubled his previous best. A year later he hit 31 in the league. Gareth Bale, not a centre-forward but another with the pace and 6’1″ physique, exploded in 2012/13, from a career best of nine league goals aged 22, to 21 when aged 23 – not too dissimilar to Ronaldo, whom he soon joined at Real Madrid.

Aged 22, Robert Lewandowski, in his first season in a big league, scored just nine goals in his debut campaign with Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, in 43 games. Not exactly a world-beater on that evidence. Yet aged 23, he scored 30, and since then was never below 25, and reached as high as 55, before moving to Barcelona this summer, aged 33. He’s another who is of a similar physique to Núñez, and plays a vaguely similar way.

Núñez reminds me most of Torres. The later had slightly better control, but was maybe not as good in the air. If Núñez gets to be 80% as good as peak Torres, that’s a win; 70% as good as peak Lewandowski would also be a win.

A lot has been made of Sadio Mané leaving, but even he made a massive impact back in 2016/17 with just 13 goals; a tally he’d go on to at least double on a couple of occasions. By contrast, Mo Salah – in his mid-20s when things kicked into gear for him – started with 44 goals in his debut season, and hasn’t got within a dozen of that since.

But who cares? His least prolific season saw the Reds win the league, and Núñez’s job is not to outscore Salah or anyone else: it’s to help Liverpool win games. Do that enough and you win the major trophies.

Goals or no goals, Núñez’s pace, work-rate and height will cause opposition defences problems, and by being a nuisance he will open up space for Salah, Luis Díaz, Diogo Jota and the not-to-be-written-off Roberto Firmino; just as the close marking they will require will free up space for Núñez.

Firmino played all 38 games when the Reds won the title, yet only scored at a one-in-four rate. But again, who cares, as Liverpool won a crazy 32 of those games. The team was peaking in 2019/20, but none of the strikers had their most prolific season. The team was as beautifully balanced as it could get.

If a striker just stood there, like some did in the old days (or Ronaldo now, aged 37), to do nothing other than poach, then yes, you’d judge him on his goals’ record. But that’s an outdated notion, given how few now do that, beyond someone too famous to be told otherwise.

A striker who creates the space for the team to score four goals is better than one who does nothing but bag one for himself. It’s even worse if he’s so famous and such an overbearing personality that he has to be constantly fed chances, only for the team to score markedly fewer goals, and win markedly fewer points.

Núñez will of course be judged on his goals by outsiders, but his pace, zest and relative youthfulness can force defences back, and his height allows him to challenge for headers in the box in a way that Liverpool haven’t had for years (i.e. heading at goal when challenging a big defender, not just when finding space to get on the end of what often has to be a perfect cross, which was all Mané and Jota could rely on). He can cause chaos, and goals for the team can flow from that.

While more technically adroit than Núñez, peak Firmino was a player you had to watch (and watch closely), rather than fixate on goals’ columns. If you spoke only about Firmino in terms of his goal output it was like admitting that you don’t really understand football; akin to asking “who is Max Martin?” when it comes to writing hit singles, because you’ve never heard of him.

Firmino has never been express-rapid, but a lot of his best work was a form of magic, invisible to the metric-counters: to vacate the box at just the right moment; to dummy the ball to allow Salah or Mané in on goal; to make a decoy run, and disrupt; to drag a defender or two into no-man’s land.

Núñez is faster, taller, and seems to be a better finisher than Firmino based on the last 18 months of improvement, but his initial gift could be about creating more space for Salah, or pulling into Diaz’s zone so that Diaz can switch inside.

It could be all the goals Klopp loves from counterpressing, by harrying the opposition into mistakes: the corners won by chasing a lost cause that Núñez might not be the one to directly convert, but Virgil van Dijk, Ibrahima Konaté and Joel Matip might. It could be from winning headers from long clearances, that no Liverpool striker will have done much in the past half-dozen years, and turning high, overhit crosses that others cannot reach into chances via knock-downs.

Firmino – always a fit professional – could be reborn, with a possible chance to start the season in the XI as Núñez continues to settle, and then, at worst, the Brazilian could be a key man to bring on as one of five subs, given that he can be a defensive forward or an attacking midfielder or fourth striker on the pitch, depending on the game state (and able to switch between the two roles, to balance the needs of the team). While not an impact sub per se, Firmino is the one who can change a game in the greatest number of ways.

Encouragingly, both Firmino and Salah look sharp in preseason, and won’t even be at peak fitness yet. Firmino has no goals, but again, you don’t judge him on goals. (If he scored zero in a season that could be a problem, but again, it’s about winning 30+ league games and going deep in Europe, and that happens with him on the pitch, it’s a sign of success.)

One area where Núñez will have less scope to score 5-8 further goals – the kind that can skew perceptions to a reasonable degree – is penalties, unless Salah is off the field, as he won’t be as beautifully generous during the season (unless Núñez is really under pressure and needs a goal, and the game is already as good as won). Fabinho is possibly the club’s best penalty taker, but Núñez is like Salah in being excellent too. As such, Núñez will probably now be the 2nd-taker, after Salah.

On Núñez, I like how, from all situations, he aims for the corners – a proper finisher’s approach. He’s not a hit-and-hope merchant who just blasts centrally and hopes to blitz the keeper. Three of his four goals against RBL were into the corners, and the fourth was intended to be, but the keeper helped it on its way.

The second was interesting as he gave himself the cut-across angle by taking the ball more to his right, to swing it back across his body. This is classic centre-forward play – the touch slightly away from goal, in order to whip it back with a swivel.

The third was more like classic Ian Rush, sliding in to divert a cross not straight ahead (and at the keeper), but to try and put a 45º angle on it, so as to again aim for the corner. There’s risk in this, in that it can easily be diverted wide, but it’s almost like Joe Root playing a shot to third man, just cutely enough to avoid the slips.

A low-quality (or maybe low-confidence) striker would have just slid in and tried to bundle the ball “through” the keeper, but Núñez went for the “finisher’s finish”. However, in order to open his Liverpool account from the spot, he went for power and some placement, rather than some power and full placement: a safer option, when the pressure is felt. It wasn’t quite fully in the corner, but it was a full-blooded shot.

I had previously noticed with his penalties for Benfica, when he was obviously relaxed and the main man in the team, that most almost skimmed the inside of the post, such was the placement. He did a wrong-footing shuffle, then arrowed them low and firm, side-footed, right into the bottom corner.

So for all his pace and power, I see a finesse to his finishing, even if his touch is not Firminoesque in its silkiness, and even if he doesn’t have Mané’s wonderful skill. (Then again, Mané never scored four in a game, let alone a half of football.)

These are all good signs, even if the pressure won’t abate on the new no.27 until he scores in proper games, and it will reappear during any droughts. He has a hefty price tag to justify, but he’s capable of doing so, even with dickheads making life harder, in the age of laughing at people much more talented.

Even if he scores just 10-15 goals, if Liverpool win major honours, then Núñez will be a success.

 

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