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EPL TALK: Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez needs to step into big league

Like his team, Uruguayan has been misfiring more than excelling, and the Reds need him to step up in the crucial coming weeks

Liverpool forward Darwin Nunez scores against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the English Premier League, but the goal was later disallowed by VAR.
Liverpool forward Darwin Nunez scores against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the English Premier League, but the goal was later disallowed by VAR. (PHOTO: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

EVERYONE loves a trier. There is something noble about the one who never stops trying, like a wide-eyed puppy looking for a missing stick. He continues to burrow away in search of a lost cause, tail wagging, refusing to give up. It’s endearing.

It’s been Darwin Nunez this season, scampering around, eager to please and willing to chase anything. He’s convinced that he’s about to make a major breakthrough on his master’s behalf, at any moment. Definitely. Almost certainly. Perhaps.

Puppies come with a name tag. Nunez arrived with a £85 million price tag and has spent months attempting to demonstrate his value. Against Wolves, the Uruguayan floated an impeccable cross that Harvey Elliott wasted. Nunez also chested a lovely ball into Elliott’s path, which should have ended in a goal, but didn’t. Nunez also had a fine finish ruled out. Such dedication banks a lot of goodwill. What’s not to like?

There’s plenty for Jurgen Klopp. The Liverpool manager stressed how “super important” Nunez already was for the Reds and there’s no doubt that “everybody can see he will get there”. Klopp’s intentions were good but a tad patronising, like the puppy owner acknowledging that his pet is still peeing on the carpet, but he will get there.

Nunez may need to get there a little faster, preferably against Manchester United in an Anfield meeting that takes on a greater magnitude, following Liverpool’s marginal improvement in form and the possibility of a late run at Champions League qualification.

Klopp won’t say it. Nunez’s teammates won’t say it. Most decent Reds fans won’t say it. But they could all use a goal or two from the diligent Uruguayan on Monday morning. Puppy love is cute. But a little more bite might come in handy now.

But to even suggest that Nunez might be falling short of lofty, pre-season expectations feels uncouth, a tawdry attempt to blacken the name of an honest trier, a willing runner who never stops running; a forward who makes room for others with his off-the-ball running and a selfless striker willing to run into the channels.

Oh, and did we mention his running?

Defenders of the Nunez faith might be overcompensating a little, pulling out the reliable cliché for misfiring No.9s. He makes goals for others. He’s more than a goal-scorer (which can be benign pundit-speak for he’s less than a goal-scorer.)

Nunez is indeed more than a goal-scorer and does do all of the above – his industry against Wolves was exceptional – but he may be veering into Wout Weghorst’s territory.

Following Manchester United’s Carabao Cup victory, it’s only a matter of time before dictionary definitions of “happy-go-lucky” are replaced with beaming photographs of Weghorst holding his winners’ medal, which is quite a feat because he also provides the textbook definition of a “big lump up top”.

The beaming Dutchman was signed as a penalty box vandal, free to make a real mess in the final third and liberate United's artists around him. He will do the same at Anfield with a goofy grin, ready to desecrate the place. Goals are optional extras.

But Liverpool need more than a battering ram. The emphasis on Nunez’s work rate and physicality is the standard defence of a non-goal-scoring goalscorer (United mounted a similar case for Romelu Lukaku initially.)

Darwin Nunez looks dejected after missing a scoring opportunity against Wolves.
Darwin Nunez looks dejected after missing a scoring opportunity against Wolves. (PHOTO: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Crucial weeks coming for Nunez, Reds

Of course, Nunez remains a better fit at the Reds than Lukaku ever was at United. The Uruguayan reached 10 goals for his new club in 23 appearances, a superior return than Sadio Mané, Michael Owen and Luis Suárez (they only managed nine in 23). Famously, Roberto Firmino found the target just once in his first 23 appearances.

Time is on Nunez’s side. For now.

He’s scored 12 times in all competitions – six in 18 appearances in the English Premier League – and his EPL goals per 90 minutes are in the upper echelons of the chart (and might have been higher still, but for that foolish red card and a recent shoulder injury).

But he has missed 16 chances in the EPL – the second highest. In fairness, Erling Haaland tops the list with 18. But he’s also scored 27 times to lead the list that matters. Nunez is joint-20th with six goals, sharing the slot with James Ward-Prowse, who plays in midfield for relegation-threatened Southampton.

The £85-million ball and chain is an unfair handicap to carry from game to game, so cast it aside and consider a simpler question. Are six goals a fair return for an accomplished striker leading a forward line that competed for four trophies until the very end last season?

Klopp has hinted at Nunez’s youthful inexperience, which may partially explain the 14 times the 23-year-old striker has been caught in an offside position. Mo Salah has been flagged off 16 times, but he’s started six more EPL games. Nunez’s eagerness may need to be tempered so a cooler head can prevail.

Likeability goes a long way, which may have spared Nunez the kind of criticism that saw off the last EPL striker with an inflated transfer fee. Lukaku’s figures didn’t add up either, but he was never permitted such a lengthy grace period. There were – and are – extenuating circumstances. Nunez terrorises defenders, creates chances and assists team-mates, despite joining a transitional squad in search of a new identity.

And Lukaku fell over a lot.

But likeability also has a limited shelf life. The much-anticipated Nunez breakthrough feels like the end of Singapore’s rain season. It must happen eventually. It’s going to happen. Just watch. Any day now. Wait for it … Oh well, we like the rain, right? And Salah can score Liverpool’s goals, right? Who needs change?

Overcompensating is a kind and empathetic way of covering for others, but it won’t secure European football next season. Manchester United can accommodate a non-scoring goal-scorer, for now at least, but Liverpool are operating within a much smaller margin of error. Upcoming fixtures include United, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. Goals can no longer be optional extras.

Nunez doesn’t need to live up to the £85-million price tag. But if he could take it upon himself to meet the basic criteria of the job description in the coming weeks, then the Reds may yet return to the Champions League.

Nunez doesn’t need to live up to the £85-million price tag. But if he could take it upon himself to meet the basic criteria of the job description in the coming weeks, then the Reds may yet return to the Champions League.

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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