A trip to Portugal became an inspired recruitment strategy. Troubled defenders had first-hand evidence that a young striker was irrepressible; so good that the Premier League giants had to sign him. And after a 2003 friendly against Sporting Lisbon, the Manchester United manager was delayed while manager Sir Alex Ferguson signed the deal for the rising Cristiano Ronaldo.
Fast forward to the best part of two decades and there are some differences. This time the target is not Old Trafford – 19 years ago Gerard Houllier and Arsene Wenger were among the young Ronaldo’s other admirers – and it has taken Liverpool several weeks to complete a move for Darwin Nunez.
But there’s the same sentiment that a transfer will be endorsed by defenders relieved they’ll only have to face the newcomer in training. Virgil van Dijk, a man whose standards are invariably high and whose comments tend to be measured, described Nunez in May as one of the toughest strikers he’s ever faced. Goals in both legs of the Champions League quarter-finals weren’t enough to keep Liverpool from progressing, but were a compelling job interview. With Van Dijk rested, Nunez tormented the Dutchman’s team-mates at Anfield.
Fast, direct and relentless, he looked like a Liverpool forward at Liverpool.
Now he becomes Liverpool’s most expensive striker; If add-ons are triggered that take his total fee to £85m, he will replace Van Dijk as a record signing.
He may have only been really strong for one season – this particular Darwin has developed quickly – but the other signs are promising: their latest signing from Portugal, Luis Diaz, shared some similar qualities, was natural looking and was an instant hit. Had Diaz stayed at Porto for the rest of the season, he would likely have been the second-best goalscorer in the league; Second behind Nunez, who was in the lead at 26.
His Champions League goals, including a brace against Barcelona, strikes against Bayern Munich and Ajax, suggested he wasn’t a flat-track bully. Aside from finding the net in both meetings with Liverpool, two goals were disallowed for offside. If he’s shown to play on the shoulder of the last defender, that can be a trademark of many of Jurgen Klopp’s forwards.
Nunez is both a forward and a Klopp winger. For Benfica he often outplayed target man Roman Yaremchuk. In Klopp’s reverse forward line, the nominally wide men can be the most progressive duo. Nunez’s penchant for the left inside channel, coupled with his speed, makes him a skinny, inverted winger. He’s no stranger to attacking at the far post – which could bode well given the supply line from Liverpool’s right flank – and some of his header goals are reminiscent of fellow countryman Edinson Cavani; That Sadio Mane is excellent in the air reinforces the impression that he is the natural replacement for Bayern Munich’s goal.
A Klopp striker’s defining traits can include the ability to get into goal-scoring positions. If Nunez can repeat his form from last year when he scored 26 goals in the Portuguese league with an xG of 15.73, he might be the most clinical of them all.
And yet he may be a Klopp striker, but not a pep striker. Pep Guardiola’s wingers can be passers, midfielders. Nunez’s graduation rate last year is just 54.0 percent; StatsBomb ranks him in the bottom 1 percent of forwards in terms of shot-generating actions. It’s all a testament to his directness, but Klopp’s broad men aren’t being tasked with playing a prominent role in the build-up.
Nunez is seven years younger than Mane and the Senegalese’s desire to leave is hastening the transition to Klopp’s second team at Anfield. A famous front three all turning 30 within nine months was a ticking time bomb; Now, while Mohamed Salah’s expiring contract remains an issue, there’s a futuristic Portuguese-themed trio in Diogo Jota and former Primeira Liga duo Diaz and Nunez.
It points to the influence of new director of football Julian Ward, who used to work for the Portuguese Football Federation, and former Porto manager Pep Lijnders. Klopp is increasingly influenced by his precocious assistant. The German is a great communicator but doesn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese; Lijnders does this, which makes him more important at Diaz and Nunez.
Liverpool’s statistically minded owners might feel like they’ve been on the right track in the transfer market for a long time. Their record has been excellent in recent years. They previously identified players like Alexis Sanchez and Willian but lost to Premier League rivals with greater traction.
Now they have captured Tottenham target Diaz and Nunez, who were on United’s radar, both at the expense of clubs then outside the Champions League. There was a time when the Ferguson factor was part of United’s allure. Now Nunez offers proof of Liverpool’s draw. In the fight for his signature, the fittest survived. It all feels quite Darwinian.