The Nunez Narrative – And Why We Should Ignore It
by Gareth Roberts
IT WAS a decent draw against Manchester City, the club with the asterisk of 115 charges hanging over it that has won the last three Premier League titles (and seven of the last 12).
That draw, too, was at a ground where Liverpool were thumped 4-1 last season and have also lost 4-0 and 5-0 during Jurgen Klopp’s time at the club.
It has left The Reds a point behind ‘the richest football club in the world’ in the Premier League, and two behind current leaders Arsenal.
In Europe, Liverpool have qualified for the last 16 as group winners, they have progressed in the League Cup, and there have been just two defeats in 20 games in all competitions so far this season; including one that will forever rankle because of the staggering VAR cock up at Spurs.
All in all then, reasons to be cheerful as it’s rammed down our throats that that is exactly how we should feel at this time of year. And yet, there is always “an issue”, isn’t there?
Such is the proliferation of football media now, there will always be someone, somewhere finding fault. And look, I get it. Liverpool is a big football club, with a big support, and attracts lots of clicks for anything that is said or written about it.
Many in the game of producing content have long realised that being controversial or extreme in opinion will pull in the clickers like flies to a dog egg on the grass.
Manchester City 1-1 Liverpool— Opta Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) November 25, 2023
Liverpool do what no other team has done in 2023 and earn a Premier League point at the Etihad.
Trent Alexander-Arnold's second-half strike ends City's winning run at home at 23 games #MCILIV pic.twitter.com/2V9yr8l8qB
Post-City, Trent Alexander Arnold was over-analysed (again) with a widely shared stat about the amount of times Jeremy Doku dribbled past him being held up as evidence that the 25-year-old European Cup, Premier League, Club World Cup and FA Cup winner, man of the match at the Etihad, is some kind of dud.
Oh, and he’s also part of the second best defence in the Premier League right now – 11 goals conceded in 13 games (two at Tottenham…).
Darwin Nunez was also under fire. Again, I get it to a degree. If a club like Liverpool commits a fee likely to hit an eventual £85 million, it is - whether we like it or not - going to attract some attention – and some of those previously mentioned extreme opinions.
The general vibe I get about Nunez is he is well-liked. As soon as he appeared on the touchline against Lask on Thursday night his song quickly followed from those in the corner of The Kop.
We know there have been misses. We know some of them have been of the real head-scratching variety. But when “Troll Football” compiles his unflattering moments, they don’t mention the deadly double that sunk Newcastle for one of the best aways you could hope to be at, or the belter at Bournemouth, to pop The Cherries out of the League Cup.
Nunez, it’s worth remembering, is still only 61 games into his Liverpool career (36 starts). Against City, at one end of the pitch Erling Haaland scored a goal. At the other, Nunez had a header on target, but dithered over another opportunity and so the window was open – cue the comparisons between the players again.
What is it we are comparing exactly again?
Liverpool were never in the running to sign Haaland, a player who is “officially” on £375,000 a week at City (more than top earner Mo Salah at Liverpool) but is also reportedly benefitting from a series of substantial, almost-guaranteed, bonuses that see his weekly wage surge beyond the £850,000 a week mark.
So, yes, his transfer fee of £51.5million is some kind of “bargain” due to his release clause at Borussia Dortmund. But there’s the small matter of £44m a year to find to keep him in his dodgy undies.
Nunez is said to be on a basic wage of £140,000 at Liverpool and is under contract until the summer of 2027.
The comparison between the two has been bunkum from the start: Haaland was as proven of a marksman as you can possibly be at 22 years old; the closest thing to guaranteed goals: 86 in 89 appearances for Dortmund with 15 of those coming in the Champions League in just 13 turnouts.
Nunez, by contrast, had impressed with two goals against Liverpool in Europe, but was still regarded as a rough diamond. His Benfica stats read 48 goals in 85 appearances.
Haaland now has 71 goals in 73 appearances for City (5,821 game minutes). Nunez is 22 in 61 for Liverpool (3,356 minutes).
Fifteen – including two in the 7-0 win over Manchester United – in his debut season felt decent enough. Seven this season feels like it is being presented as a disappointment despite there being much football to be played.
So shall we do some context again that goes beyond “Troll Football” or cringe-inducing YouTubers sitting on computer-generated thrones?
Salah is out in front for Liverpool goalscorers this season, as ever, with 13. Diogo Jota has eight, Nunez is in third ahead of Cody Gakpo (6) and Luis Diaz (5).
Shot accuracy-wise, Gakpo leads on 61 per cent, Salah and Jota come in at 58 per cent, Nunez is on 52 per cent and Diaz is on 42 per cent.
For goal conversion, Nunez is on 15 per cent, a long way back from Jota (33 per cent) and Salah (30 per cent). And that kind of matches the eye test.
Nunez has plenty of shots, and plenty on target, but sometimes a bit of flare and finesse when the whites of the goal posts are emerging is lacking.
But what about the pace, power and unpredictability he brings? What about what he does for others? What about the partnership and understanding with Salah? He’s matching Mo for assists this season (five) and in general, away from the stats, he just doesn’t, to this Kopite at least, to have the air of a disastrous flop around him.
Klopp said in April: “Darwin is a player with a different skill set to all our other players, that’s good. He’s a real handful, he’s a machine and he will score a lot – well, he’s scored already these number of goals so it’s all fine.
“But, of course, he is still adapting. His English is still not great, if not existing at all. We are working on that, massively. It’s not helpful to go through a difficult debut season for the whole team – how can a striker shine when the team is struggling?
“That’s not possible, but he had super moments for us. Was injured in some moments and suspended in others, it is not helpful but not a problem at all.
“This is a long-term project. I understand that he wants to play desperately from the beginning, but we have to find a way that works for us again. I’m completely fine with the situation but I understand that Darwin is not always fine with it.”
That’s all fair, isn’t it?
Yet this week Robbie Fowler was asking in The Mirror: “How long do you allow a player to develop from raw and promising, into the finished article?”
He went on: “How long do you give him? He arrived at Anfield almost 18 months ago now, and yet we are still talking about this potential, this ‘exciting rawness’. But you can’t go through your entire career being raw, can you?”
Fowler of course was a very special talent for The Reds. “God” hit 183 goals in 369 appearances for Liverpool. His finishing was up there with the best ever seen at Anfield. In terms of putting the ball in the back of the net, there aren’t many peak Robbie Fowlers about.
So perhaps Robbie and other Darwin detractors should just accept Nunez is part of the armoury at Anfield. He isn’t, and won’t ever be, Haaland. Or Fowler. He also isn’t, and won’t ever be, Andy Carroll.
That shout is still kicking about, so let’s get factual again. The Geordie clocked up 58 appearances for Liverpool and plundered only 11 goals – a games/goals ratio of 5.27. Nunez’s is 2.77 and he’s already clocked up more games and goals than Carroll.
It’s funny when you dig into history and start thinking about perceptions of players and crunching their numbers. I liked Craig Bellamy. Enjoyed his needle and bite. I wrote at the time about the value of a player that winds up opposing players, managers and fans.
And then there’s the Nou Camp. That goal, that celebration, that result, that trip. Bellamy scored 18 goals (four less than Nunez) for Liverpool in 79 appearances – a games/goals ratio of 4.39.
I was a fan of Emile Heskey, too. Remember all the stick he got? Lads with flesh hanging over their belt buckles singing “If Heskey can play for England so can I”. How did that go, lads?
Heskey racked up 223 games for Liverpool. He bagged 60 goals for a games/goals ratio of 3.72.
With 22 goals for the Reds, Nunez is already the 123rd highest goalscorer for Liverpool sitting alongside Ronny Rosenthal (games/goals ratio 4.41) and Ryan Babel (6.64) among others.
He’s scored more than David N’Gog (or Robert N’Gog if you’re Michael Owen), Mark Walters, Vladimir Smicer, Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Luis Diaz, Harry Kewell, Karl-Heinz Riedle, Takumi Minamino, Titi Camara, Jari Litmanen, Robbie Keane and, of course, El Hadji Diouf.
Did you know Diouf only scored six times for Liverpool? SIX. In 73 games. A games/goals ratio of 13.33 games.
I could go on. But you get the point. Away from the hysteria and desperation to write him off, Nunez will keep scoring, keep rising up that list and, I reckon, keep on improving.
He already has improved for my money. He’s more attuned to the team’s needs. He grafts more. And while Garth Crooks might not be enamoured by him having a pop at Pep Guardiola, I’m all for it.
Twelve goals and seven assists in 16 starts for club and country this season doesn’t sound too bad to me. So I’m going old school. He’s one of ours. He plays for Liverpool. He wears the red shirt. Get behind the lad and see where he goes.
The rest? For now, who’s arsed?