Darwin Núñez Arrived Just In Time For Liverpool
8:59 AM EDT on August 28, 2023
It's hard to imagine a soccer club having a worse opening half-hour than Liverpool did against Newcastle United at St. James Park on Sunday. After escaping a second yellow by the skin of his teeth, Liverpool right back Trent Alexander-Arnold was punished for a bout of lacksadasia, as he failed to attack and control a back-pass from Mohamed Salah, allowing new Newcastle's Anthony Gordon to latch onto a one-on-one, which he cooly finished past Alisson:
Just three minutes later, with Newcastle pushing for a second goal, Liverpool captain Virgil van Dijk brought down Alexander Isak just outside of the box in what the referee, and VAR, decided was a denial of goal-scoring opportunity. Just like that, Liverpool was down to 10 men, not even 30 minutes into one of the hardest matches of the season:
This could hardly have gone worse for Liverpool. Conversely, though, it's hard to imagine a soccer player having a better 15 minutes of fame than Darwin Núñez, who salvaged Liverpool out of its own idiocy and into three much-needed points.
Liverpool's €75 million Uruguayan hasn't exactly been a disappointment since moving to Anfield in the summer of 2022, but he also hasn't lived up to his massive price tag. That was to be expected by everyone but the most deluded of Pool Boys fans. At the time of his move, Núñez was just 23 years old, having never played in one of the so-called top five leagues of Europe, and his skills were both bountiful and raw. He was, in other words, a very expensive project at a club that needed a bit more last season. That's not to say that Núñez's existence is what doomed Liverpool to a finish outside of the top four, but he didn't provide enough to get them into the Champions League for this season.
Still, though, there were always flashes of his talent. Núñez is a monster off the ball, mixing powerful running with a nose for open spaces. Last season, it felt like that combination got him chance after chance that his boots couldn't quite convert, leading to a feeling of missed opportunity around his signing. The man could get himself into positions to score goals, after all; the ball just didn't go in. For the season, Núñez was in the 98th percentile for expected goals, but only in the 81st for actual goals, and the same was true for assists (96th percentile and 61, respectively). He shot a lot (4.39 per game, 99th percentile) and had the ball in the box plenty (7.86 touches a game), but the end product was just not there yet: only nine goals and three assists in 29 Premier League matches.
On Sunday, Núñez showed exactly why he was valued so highly by the Liverpool brass, and in the exact ways that he was succeeding last season, only with the end product arriving just when the Reds needed it most. His two goals, one in the 81st minute and in the 93rd, were eerily similar to each other, and perfectly descriptive of the dimension Núñez brings to Liverpool's attack.
Let's tackle the first one first. Diogo Jota tried to hit a through ball to an onrushing Núñez down the right side of the field, only for it to hit Newcastle defender Sven Botman in the back and leg, perfectly dropping in front of the Uruguayan. Núñez took one touch then rocketed a ground-level laser to the far post that beat Nick Pope and equalized for Liverpool after 50 minutes of drudgery and foul-ridden defense from Newcastle.
If that goal felt like a bit of divine intervention, with the lucky bounces off of Botman, then the second felt like Núñez at his peak. Salah grabbed the ball just past midfield and spotted Núñez sprinting at the backline. The Egyptian hit a wonderfully weighted through ball between two Newcastle defenders, bending it onto Núñez's right foot. The big man didn't even need a touch on the right side to blast another one past Pope, and Liverpool into three points that looked impossible after Van Dijk's red card.
A lot of credit, or blame as it may be, goes to Newcastle here. After Van Dijk was shown his marching orders, the Magpies strangely eased off the throttle, which was doubly confusing given how much they dominated the opening half hour. Instead, the hosts allowed Liverpool to sit back and defend, before allowing them to spring counter-attacks. Newcastle's only recourse was fouling, a lot: Despite playing an hour with a man advantage, Newcastle had 16 fouls to Liverpool's 10, killing the momentum of a match that should have been strongly in their favor. Especially guilty here was midfielder Joelinton, who escaped a yellow card despite having what felt like 10 fouls just on his own and multiple warnings.
Those conditions perfectly played into 10-man Liverpool's hands. The fact that both Núñez goals came from direct plays towards goal feels fitting. There's no doubt about it: This was the Uruguayan's best game in a Liverpool jersey, even though he only came onto the pitch in the 77th minute. He was obviously decisive, but even more than that he was exactly the type of player that Liverpool needed in this particular game, in this particular situation. His game is well-suited to a more direct style of attack, one that recalls the pinnacle days of Liverpool's so-called heavy metal football under Jürgen Klopp.
While he didn't win the game all on his own—new midfield signings Alexis Mac Allister and, especially Dominik Szoboszlai were immense, and Alisson kept the game at 1-0 for longer than maybe any other goalie on the planet could have—Núñez needed this type of performance. Whether Klopp continues to use him as an impact super sub, or whether he gets more starts under his belt, if Núñez can convert his physical talents and nose for shots into actual goals, well, he might not be worth all that money, but he'll be a great signing nonetheless. And if he plays consistently like he did for this goal-heavy cameo at St. James Park, Núñez might end up being worth every penny anyway.