EPL TALK: Darwin Nunez and the fun power battle between Liverpool, Man United

·5-min read
Benfica's Darwin Nunez sticks out his tongue as he celebrates scoring a goal in the Portuguese league.
Benfica's Darwin Nunez celebrates scoring a goal in the Portuguese league. (PHOTO: Reuters/Rodrigo Antunes)

FOOTBALL Twitter is never sillier or shoutier than when the two tribes of Liverpool and Manchester United go to war over a potential signing.

Darwin Núñez is the gift we didn’t know we needed right now, like a Uruguayan pair of socks that are surprisingly snug and comforting.

Post-season tribalism usually requires an international tournament or Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher to reach an hysterical pitch that only dogs can hear to keep the fires burning. But thankfully, we have Nunez.

And Liverpool do not. At least not yet. And nor do Manchester United. At least not yet, or ever, unless one of the world’s most promising strikers fancies spending his Thursday nights in a freezing penalty box, wondering why he wears the same jersey as Harry Maguire.

You see? The puerile, button-pushing sniping of football Twitter contaminates us all in the end, mostly because it’s such a guilty pleasure, like bingeing America’s Court TV to watch a couple of brand names argue over money and reputation to impress a third party.

Only in this case, the third party is not a judge, but a 22-year-old striking powerhouse of athletic and physical perfection. Nunez scored 34 goals last season for Benfica, 26 of them in the league and a couple against Liverpool in the Champions League.

After the game, Jurgen Klopp picked him out for praise, considering the Reds’ defence had failed to pick out Nunez during the game. He lost them. He lost Virgil van Dijk.

Like a young Cristiano Ronaldo leaving John O’Shea with a twisted torso and a shattered ego in a friendly between Manchester United and Sporting Lisbon, Nunez passed an unknown audition for his opponents every time he passed a defender.

Nunez is made for Liverpool. He’s also made for Manchester United, which turns this transfer tussle into an episode of The Bachelor, where the leading man must choose between an ideal partner or an elderly divorcee who insists she can still shake it up like she did in the Nineties.

Naturally, the imbalance of power, suitability, influence and attraction between the two potential suitors is playing out on Football Twitter, with both factions mocking the other sides' efforts to woo Nunez.

The Reds have recent history, loads of trophies and a near impeccable track record in the transfer market on their side. The Red Devils have a sense of humour.

As many United followers have pointed out, Liverpool are poised to use another £100 million of the Philippe Coutinho fee from 2018, highlighting yet again Klopp’s infallibility in the transfer market and the Reds’ unbeatable net spend.

Liverpool's Alisson Becker (left) and Virgil van Dijk, recording transfer signings during Jurgen Klopp's tenure.
Liverpool's Alisson Becker (left) and Virgil van Dijk, recording transfer signings during Jurgen Klopp's tenure. (PHOTO: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

It’s a playful dig, but the proceeds from the Coutinho sale have always shared elements of Willy Wonka’s everlasting gob-stopper, allowing overeager Reds to chew on them endlessly to champion Liverpool’s underdog credentials.

Clinging to the mythical "Net Spend Trophy" undoubtedly – and entertainingly – panders to the notion of the Reds being blue-collar purists floating above a cesspool of grubby capitalists, oligarchs and sportswashing exercises.

Liverpool have performed miracles with the second most expensive goalkeeper and the second most expensive centre-back of all time. If Nunez joins for a reported £85 million, he’ll become the fourth most expensive player in English Premier League history.

Klopp isn’t a Dickensian waif, sitting alongside Alisson and van Dijk in a Victorian workhouse. He’s doing just fine. And if the expected sales of Sadio Mane, Takumi Minamino, Neco Williams, Nat Phillips and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain go through, the Liverpool manager may yet hold onto the soul-cleansing "Net-Spend Trophy" for another season.

The United faithful mock the net-spend fixation in preparation for what’s likely to come, using sarcasm as an emollient for the sting of Nunez smiling for the camera and putting pen to paper as Klopp ensnares another Old Trafford target.

There are already too many names, too many Liverpool success stories gleefully trumpeted on social media to remind United of a deeply flawed and failed transfer policy since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.

Van Dijk, Mane, Fabinho, Thiago Alcantara and Luis Diaz are a compilation of United’s crimes and misdemeanours, a downbeat series of "what ifs". They all rejected the club’s overtures or the club lost interest. Either way, the five symbolise United’s dysfunction.

A sixth seems untenable, unpalatable, for a support base desperately looking for the shoots of recovery under Erik ten Hag.

United’s new manager is currently on holiday, which is unfortunate, but his employers have declared an interest in Nunez for obvious professional and personal reasons.

Professionally, the Red Devils’ attack is led by a science experiment, half tanned colossus, half Benjamin Button, a man determined to follow Cher and turn back time. But Cristiano Ronaldo needs a forward like Nunez alongside him. Personally, they share an agent in Jorge Mendes, a father figure for Ronaldo. It’s an obvious fit for the squad, but also a bold statement of intent for the club.

The combined branding of Manchester United and Ten Hag needs to be enough to outweigh the loss of the Champions League, a superior attraction for modern footballers, particularly South Americans like Nunez.

But Mendes’ agency also looks after Fabinho and Diogo Jota. And the Reds have achieved notable success in panning for gold in Portuguese football (Diaz came from Porto.) The appeal for Nunez is obvious, his eventual destination seemingly inevitable.

And that’s the overriding, existential problem for United, the sense of inevitability in the reported tug of war between enemies. In reality, how serious is this transfer battle? Like the Germans and penalty shootouts, in the end, the Reds always win.

In reality, how serious is this transfer battle? Like the Germans and penalty shootouts, in the end, the Reds always win.

They'll take the pot shots on social media because they’ll take Nunez back to Anfield, unless the Old Trafford board conjures a counter offer that reasserts their traditional ambition.

If Nunez signs for Liverpool, as expected, then United followers can still write funny tweets about their rivals’ net-spend heroics, but the last laugh will continue to elude them.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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