There are few players as much fun to watch as Darwin Nunez, and the Liverpool striker showed both his best and most chaotic sides in their win at Aston Villa.
For the first time this season, Liverpool have now won three consecutive Premier League matches. And for the first time since the end of August they’re back in the top six in the table.
Their win at Aston Villa in the Premier League was perhaps best characterised by the chaotic involvement of Darwin Nunez, a player who in equal measures looks like one of the best strikers in the world and a player who’s only had the concept of football vaguely and very briefly explained to him.
Nunez doesn’t so much run as lollop. He covers a lot of ground, but it does sometimes feel as though he’s putting so much energy into his running that he half forgets to remember what he’s supposed to do with the ball once it’s at his feet. In some respects, he resembles a very energetic greyhound let loose on the pitch in a Liverpool shirt. Every time he gets the ball, there’s a rise in volume around Villa Park, as though 42,000 people are simultaneously saying, ‘What’s he going to do this time?’
And the range of possibilities is endless. There is clearly a sackful of talent going on there, so moments of brilliance never feel that far from the surface, but at the same time his profligacy in front of goal is such that games that Liverpool should be able to put well beyond the reach of their opponents can feel surprisingly tense as they reach their closing stages. With 15 minutes to play at Villa Park and Liverpool leading 2-1, he was put through on goal, outpaced the last defender and… dragged the ball across the goal and wide of the post.
But it only took him five minutes to right this. Refusing to give up on a ball that looked as though it was rolling inexorably out of play, he pulled it back from the touchline, where Villa goalkeper Robin Olsen could only palm the ball out, allowing Stefan Bajcetic to compose himself and put the ball through the legs of Tyrone Mings and kill off any lingering threat that Villa may have continued to offer. It was Bajcetic’s first goal for Liverpool, and it came just a couple of minutes after he was introduced as a substitute in only his second Premier League appearance for the club.
This indefatigability is part of the reason why Liverpool paid £85m for Nunez in the first place. He runs, and he runs, and he runs, and although that running may end with something so unexpected that it even catches his team-mates off-guard, it may also end with a pass that almost nobody else on the pitch would even have had the moxie to attempt, or a moment of outstanding technique that is almost too ambitious.
Towards the end of the first half came such a moment, when a long ball over the top came at him as he ran through on goal. The slow motion replays showed it all; the perfect timing of the run, the foresight to look up and size up the opportunity, and a first time volley straight at Olsen. If his finishing can become more clinical and his imagination can be reined in to just enough of a level for those around him to know what he’s going to be trying next, he has the raw materials to become another Anfield legend, rather than the ‘flop’ that some have been extremely eager to cast him as.
Although this ended up as a comfortable win for Liverpool, Aston Villa created enough opportunities to take some disappointment from having lost this match. Liverpool scored first, the sort of Mo Salah goal that so frequently punctuated his team’s best of the last three or four years or with some superb approach play from Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, but Villa came back strongly with three good chances of their own by the time the first twenty minutes had been played.
That Liverpool were two goals up by half-time was partly due to Villa’s defending. Both of their first half goals came from corners from the right, the second coming with a deflected shot from Virgil Van Dijk. But it did feel a little throughout the early stages of the second half as though Liverpool had come back out feeling as though they’d already done enough to have won the match with 45 minutes left to play.
They had not. Ollie Watkins pulled one back for Villa just before the hour and the momentum stayed with them for much of the next 20 minutes without them being able to turn their possession into an equaliser. But while they may have lost this game, Aston Villa look very much improved under Unai Emery in comparison with whatever on earth it was that Steven Gerrard was attempting to serve up before Emery’s arrival at the club.
And the atmosphere around Villa Park feels transformed, too. The ground sounded loud for much of this match – at least it did until the third goal put the result beyond much reasonable doubt. Aston Villa may have ended upn losing this match, but at least they did so with a little style and some degree of panache. They may only be five points above the Premier League relegation places themselves, but the differences between now and then are noticeable and on the basis of their performances in Emery’s first two games, wins against Manchester United and Brighton shortly before the World Cup break, there seems little likelihood of them being dragged back into a relegation battle in the second half of this season.
Liverpool still look a little defensively open, and it does feel as though this is still a squad that needs work done to it, quite possibly over more than one transfer window. But with Chaos Nunez leading the front line and Mo Salah scoring regularly again, they look much more like the team of the last two or three seasons than that which had been so oddly limp throughout the first half of this Premier League season. It may not be enough to win them the Premier League title this time around – it already looks as though the ship has sailed on that, this time around – but they’re starting to look like the Liverpool of old again, and that should be concerning for at least a couple of the teams above them in the table.