Beyond the bluster, Darwin Nunez has the makings of a Premier League phenomenon

By Sports Desk November 05, 2022

Such is the instantaneous nature of social media that one miss, one innocuous incident can see a player written off as a "fraud" or "finished".

It's up to every one of us how much importance we tie to those individual comments. Maybe they're jokes, maybe they're serious. But when you see thousands of likes or retweets on them, you get a picture of how widespread these quick judgements are, and in that sense it doesn't really matter if they were in jest or not.

This isn't to say we didn't use to be like this, the difference is now many of us have at our fingertips an outlet that reaches thousands of people within seconds.

Darwin Nunez came in for such treatment in pre-season. During a meaningless friendly against Manchester United, the Uruguayan missed a big chance and quickly became the target of ridicule on social media.

Granted, he had recently been signed for a lot of money, but the hysteria – given the game had nothing riding on it – was remarkable. For what it's worth, he scored four in one match nine days later.

Since then, a lot of column inches have been dedicated to Nunez, which is a bit fairer now the season's in full flow.

One thing many agree about is how the striker appears to be one of the most chaotic footballers in existence, but this shouldn't cloud what he's doing well. He's raw, but if you scrape away the surface, the signs for Nunez and Liverpool are very promising.

Untapped potential

Jurgen Klopp hit the nail on the head last week when talking about Nunez's potential. In his eyes, the 23-year-old potentially has an "incredible" ceiling, but he acknowledged there was still so much work for the striker to put in that it was unclear how good he'll eventually become.

"Nobody knows, he doesn't know. Nobody knows, there is a lot [of potential] and it is so exciting, but he has to stay fit, he has to be available all the time," Klopp said. "That's all important in the life of a professional football player. We have to work on all different areas. Then, the potential is incredible. It's not only speed, the attitude is really good, he is a real worker.

"Again, I tell you – and I know there are some people out there who think, 'Technically, not sure, first touch...' – it is incredible. That he doesn't bring it on the pitch all the time, the first touch might be here or there sometimes, is nothing to do with technique, it is just a bit too late, awareness, orientation and all these kind of things, but it is all possible to develop and to learn. That's where we are at, it's really exciting, but where it can go, I have no idea."

There was always going to be scrutiny for Nunez because of the transfer fee, but would there have been as much were it not for Erling Haaland's ridiculous start? Probably not, as they were brought in around the same time and both considered by many as the so-called final pieces of the puzzle for their respective teams.

As the past few months have shown, Haaland is a phenomenon, that's not up for debate. But Nunez taking a little more time to truly settle doesn't make him any less promising than he was deemed at Benfica.

In fact, you could argue his output has exceeded expectations at this point.

Darwin's evolution

"His numbers are incredible, to be absolutely honest," Klopp also said of Nunez last week. "If you speak about xGs [expected goals], I am pretty sure his xGs are pretty high as well. He had a few chances which he missed, but he scored as well. He is involved in a lot of finishing moments, a lot of things."

Klopp is correct here – the data firmly backs him up. While Nunez's tally of three Premier League goals doesn't sound much, we shouldn't forget he's already served a three-match ban for getting sent off against Crystal Palace. His record of 0.6 goals every 90 minutes is bettered by only seven players.

With that in mind, Nunez's 432 Premier League minutes is fairly low, but he's managed to pack a lot of action into that limited period – hence the "chaotic" appraisal earlier.

He ranks inside the top 10 for goal involvements per 90 minutes (0.8) and minutes per goal (144), but it's in the shooting metrics where Nunez's productivity really shines through.

No one is registering more attempts on a per-90-minute basis than Nunez (6.7), while only Haaland (2.6) is getting more shots on target than the Uruguay forward (2.5) each game.

But perhaps crucially, and back to Klopp's point, his non-penalty xG (per 90) is 0.76, only fractionally behind Haaland's league-best 0.81.

Of course, the issue here is Nunez isn't finishing as many chances as the average player would be expected to given the quality of the openings, while Haaland has been exceptionally ruthless with his opportunities.

But it would be more concerning if he wasn't getting chances at all.

Nunez's struggles could be explained by any number of factors such as confidence, adaptation, the roles he's being asked to play, maybe even a desperate need to impress, and that might explain some of his more erratic decision-making.

But the expectation is that with time and composure Nunez's figures will eventually level up with his xG. On the evidence of his attributes until now, when they do, Liverpool will have an exceptional striker on their hands.

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