Darwin Nunez is elite, dreadful and too big a project for Arne Slot at Liverpool

Ryan Baldi
Darwin Nunez and Arne Slot at Liverpool
Darwin Nunez and Arne Slot at Liverpool

Is Darwin Nunez good at football?

He’s certainly better than you or I and – unless your second cousin twice removed is a Premier League star or you happen to be close personal friends with a Ballon d’Or contender – anyone we know.

That mate of yours who had trials everywhere as a kid and is a god in the local Sunday league? Nunez – with his eyes closed, one arm tied behind his back and wearing his gran’s slippers – would run rings around him. He could turn up to any Power League pitch in the country and completely dominate while simultaneously sipping maté and playing Wordle on his iPhone.

Compared to all but a few hundred of the very best professionals in the world, he is an exceptionally gifted footballer.

But that’s not the context in which the question matters. What matters is whether Nunez can be one of the best goalscorers in the Premier League; whether he is a good enough player to justify the £64million (potentially rising to £85million with add-ons) Liverpool paid Benfica for him two years ago; whether he can be the focal point of the Reds’ attack as they head into their post-Jurgen Klopp era.

So let’s talk it through.

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Nunez is elite. Or, at least, he has many elite traits. Athletically, he is within the top one percent of the top one per cent, even among the outstanding players he plays alongside and against in the Premier League and in European competition. He could leap out of Anfield, outsprint any defender and outmuscle most. He turns quickly and shoots powerfully. His off-ball movement has under-appreciated nuance and he has a knack for finding space in congested penalty areas.

He is also dreadful. A woeful decision-maker when it comes to determining whether to pass or shoot in high-leverage scenarios, when to dribble past his marker and when to make a simple pass, which technique to employ when taking aim at goal – head down and try to destroy everything the ball comes in contact with is usually his chosen method.

Yet Nunez is remarkably productive. Despite his flaws, he has scored a respectable 33 goals for Liverpool. Even more impressive is his return of 17 assists across the last two seasons, including eight in the Premier League this term. On average, he contributes to a Liverpool goal, as scorer or provider, every 107.14 minutes.

And still he is utterly infuriating. Painfully unreliable. According to the Premier League’s own statistics, Nunez has missed 27 ‘big’ chances this season. Only Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (32) has missed more. Haaland has also scored more than twice as many goals as the maligned Liverpool forward.

Nunez’s 11 league goals this term have come from chances worth an expected goals (xG) total of 17.84, which suggests the Uruguayan is less efficient than the average player would be with the same shots.

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It’s borne out by the eye test, too. So often Nunez draws back his boot from close range only to either smash the ball straight at the goalkeeper or blast over the bar.

Nunez exudes a fizzy, excitable energy, like a hyperactive child with a full bladder and an empty stomach repeatedly shouting ‘Are we there yet?!’ from the back seat of a car. His is not the demeanour of a cool finisher.

Haaland (112) is also the only player to have taken more shots than Nunez in the Premier League this season, with the former Benfica man’s 106 attempts the same tally as team-mate Mohamed Salah. Although the Egyptian has struggled to find his best form since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations in January, he is a much more trustworthy beneficiary of those chances.

It is an indictment of Liverpool’s attacking structure that a player as erratic in front of goal as Nunez is seeing as many chances funnelled in his direction as one of the club’s greatest-ever scorers.

There is no doubt that, while he is unrefined, Nunez has talent in abundance. And he will only be 25 years old by the start of next season, still conceivably shy of his technical peak.

There is a top player in there somewhere. Unlocking that player will require patience, coaching, faith. And were there to be no managerial change at Anfield this summer, Klopp would likely invest in the project of polishing Nunez’s rough-around-the-edges game. The German is a man of faith.

CEO Michael Edwards, however, is a man of science. As is sporting director Richard Hughes. A cold review of the evidence of Nunez’s first two seasons with the club would lead to the conclusion that it’s time to move on. And the incoming Arne Slot has enough on his plate already without taking on the task of discovering whether his predecessor’s misfiring big-money signing can be guided towards realising his potential.

The next Liverpool manager has to contend with the contractual uncertainty surrounding three key players, with Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk all about to enter the final year of their deals. Then there is the matter of assessing the squad he will inherit, envisioning how the players will fit his style and deciding whom to build around and whom to discard.

When it comes to developing Nunez, the juice might not be worth the squeeze, especially amid reports of an imminent bid for the Uruguayan from Barcelona.

So back to the initial question: is Nunez actually any good? We might never know for sure. But Liverpool need to make it someone else’s job to find out.

More: Arne Slot | Darwin Nunez | Michael Edwards