Jurgen Klopp exit has given Darwin Nunez a crucial Liverpool lifeline

Two years on from his record-breaking move to Anfield, Darwin Nunez still splits opinion on the biggest question of all; ‘is he good enough to be at Liverpool?’

There are two schools of thought on this, with seemingly no middle ground. You’re either in the ‘Nunez offers more than just goals’ camp, or you’re on team ‘get rid’.

He’s joined a list of Liverpool players that includes Alberto Moreno, Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson; love or loath, criticise or crave.

The 2022/23 season’s review of the forward ended with a thought for the campaign we’ve just witnessed; ‘he wouldn’t be first choice, leaving him with a point to prove’, but 12 months on has anything changed?

Once again Nunez has shown what he can contribute to this Liverpool side but simultaneously has raised questions about what happens next – not the best statement to be made two years running, but it’s one that remains as valid now as it did then.

    Darwin Nunez, 2023/24

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, February 10, 2024: Liverpool's Darwin Núñez celebrates after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Burnley FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 3-1. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Started: 33 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 21
Goals: 18
Assists: 13


The good, the bad and the bizarre

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND - Saturday, March 2, 2024: Liverpool's Darwin Núñez celebrates after scoring the winning goal in the ninth minute of injury time during the FA Premier League match between Nottingham Forest FC and Liverpool FC at the City Ground. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It was no real surprise to see Liverpool start the season away at Chelsea with a front three of Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota and Mohamed Salah.

The Uruguayan was brought on after 66 minutes and contributed to the final moments of the game with two blocked shots taken from outside the area.

He’d offered little against a Chelsea side that were surprisingly dreadful – a 1-1 draw which, with hindsight, gave a day one indication into Liverpool’s season-long issues, too many missed opportunities.

Jurgen Klopp decided to keep him on the bench for the next two games. Four minutes of action followed against Bournemouth then seven days later, at St James’ Park with Liverpool trailing 1-0, Nunez was thrown on with 13 minutes left.

What followed was simply unbelievable. The accuracy and power from 15 yards to fire the ball past a scrambling Nick Pope brought Liverpool level with nine minutes left.

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, ENGLAND - Sunday, August 27, 2023: Liverpool's Darwin Núñez celebrates after scoring the winning second goal during the FA Premier League match between Newcastle United FC and Liverpool FC at St James' Park. Liverpool won 2-1. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Incredibly Nunez then scored an almost identical goal deep into added time. The forward had come off the bench to deliver a match-winning performance. His first strike had an xG of 0.07 while his second came in at 0.36.

The criticism of his debut season looked to be emphatically answered, it is what everyone wanted to see – strength, desire and pin-point accuracy, everything a centre-forward should be.

Unfortunately, in his next 15 league games he only found the back of the next three times. In Europe he faired a little better, but it was the Europa League, a competition Liverpool were expected to win.

As 2023 ended, the conversations around the 24-year-old were exactly the same, could he be trusted to carry the weight of expectation, could Liverpool remain top until May?


Into the new year

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 3, 2023: Liverpool's Darwin Núñez during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Fulham FC at Anfield. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

As 2024 started, Nunez looked again to answer critics. Two exceptionally well-taken goals against Bournemouth were followed in quick succession with a further three in three.

The Reds were top and in a title fight, but as March turned into April Liverpool’s wheels came off and Darwin was one of the failing nuts that derailed a possible glut of trophies.

A Merseyside Derby defeat to Everton ended Liverpool’s realistic chance of picking up a final Premier League title under Klopp. The Nunez on show that night displayed all the characteristics that come with a player not right for the club.

Snap shots, poor accuracy, terrible decision making – bad enough if you’ve got just one, but to have all three and not for the first time, was a step too far for many.

He looked and acted as frustrated as those watching his performance.

His season stats showed a 63% shot accuracy, he could find the target but 11 goals from 108 shots, 83 inside the box, told their own story. When it came to the business end, Nunez was found wanting.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, April 24, 2024: Liverpool's Alexis Mac Allister (L) and Darwin Núñez during the FA Premier League match between Everton FC and Liverpool FC, the 244th Merseyside Derby, at Goodison Park. Everton won 2-0. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

A forward on fire makes all the difference. One who fails to make the difference brings nothing but questions.

The Uruguayan missed 27 big chances according to Opta, second only to Erling Haaland who missed 34, crucially though the Norwegian found the net 27 times in winning the Golden Boot.

Nunez finished the Premier League season 19th for top scorers, his tally of 11 putting him in the company of attacking midfielders and traditional wingers.

Nottingham Forest’s Chris Wood notched 14, while ex-Red Dominic Solanke hit 19.

Liverpool’s most expensive striker had failed to find the net consistently or convincingly. Had this been different, the solitary League Cup may have been surrounded by a few more pots of silver.


The future

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, May 18, 2024: Liverpool's Darwin Núñez during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Wolverhampton Wanderers FC at Anfield. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It was evident that under Klopp Nunez was third choice and, had the charismatic German not left Anfield, then the exit door may have been opened this summer for the ex-Benfica player.

As it is, new head coach Arne Slot is said to see the No.9 as ‘critical to his plans. This may have bought the forward one more year to prove his worth but the pressure will be on from the first whistle.

Can Slot get out of Nunez what Klopp couldn’t? Could the new Liverpool era begin with the Uruguayan realising his form of 2021/22?

It remains the only season in which he excelled, with 26 goals and four assists from 28 Liga Portugal matches. It is the type of return for which a forward at Liverpool is needed and expected to deliver.

2WGRKR0 Alkmaar, The Netherlands. 04th Feb, 2024. Alkmaar - Feyenoord coach Arne Slot during the Eredivisie match between AZ v Feyenoord at AFAS Stadion on 4 February 2024 in Alkmaar, The Netherlands. Credit: box to box pictures/Alamy Live News

Michael Edwards and Richard Hughes will have been watching with keen eyes just how Nunez has performed of late. His fox in the box style hat-trick for Uruguay last week may have given the new Liverpool hierarchy something to look forward to.

It could have come at just the right time, because Nunez would still demand a decent fee on the European market, providing funds which could be used to bolster Liverpool in other areas.

One thing is for sure, August to November will set the path for Liverpool and Nunez’s future together. A poor start to the season may signal a departure for the £85 million signing.

Best moment: His match-winning brace at Newcastle should be the type of thing we see week in, week out, as should his placement of goals witnessed against Bournemouth.

Worst moment: Too many big chances missed to chose from, but you’ll find no worse example of clinical finishing than that seen against Everton.

Role next season: Slot’s arrival should offer him one last lifeline at Liverpool. If he fails to take it, then ‘adios’ could be written in the Uruguayan’s Christmas card message.