From the moment Darwin Núñez signed for Liverpool in June of 2022, there was an unprecedented weight placed on his shoulders.
Just ten days after his signing was announced it was revealed that prolific forward Sadio Mané would be departing after six years at the club to join fellow European juggernauts Bayern Munich. The first of many expectations placed on him was to replace the world class output provided by Mané over his tenure at Liverpool. In his final season at Anfield, Mané scored 23 goals in all competitions and finished runner up to Karim Benzema for the 2022 Ballon d’Or.
Not only was he expected to replicate the performances of one of the world’s best in Mané, he was required to fit seamlessly into a side that had not consistently played a traditional striker throughout Jurgen Klopp’s entire tenure at the club with the last being Christian Benteke in 2015 prior to Klopp’s appointment. A combination of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota have played primarily as a false 9 in Klopp’s 4-3-3 system. Comparatively, in his two years at Benfica prior to joining Liverpool he had played in a 4-4-2 formation with a strike partner.
Though it was not only Sadio Mané that he was replacing, but he was also competing with another big money striker that had been signed by title rivals Manchester City a month prior to his arrival in Erling Haaland. This comparison naturally occurred due to the timing and similar price tags paid for each player, though it was never a fair fight for Núñez. Just three years ago, Haaland had just capped off his first season at Borussia Dortmund and second playing in the Champions League with 44 goals in just 40 appearances for BVB. Compare this two Núñez who had just finished as the joint-fourth top scorer in the Spanish second division for Girona.
Countless plaudits have been given to Haaland for his record breaking goalscoring season so far in the Premier League with many believing him to be the best striker in the world. This has amplified the criticism and pressure on Núñez to perform given Haaland’s form which in turn has led to further perceived failure for Núñez at Liverpool. On face value it may seem as though he has failed to live up to expectations thrust upon him, but delving deeper into his performance this season provides a different story to what is portrayed in the media.
On a statistical basis, Núñez has been quietly putting together a good season for Liverpool despite the obstacles he’s faced regarding media expectation and acclimatisation to a completely new system to him. He is Liverpool’s second top scorer and fifth top assister in the Premier League with 8 goals and 3 assists in just 16 starts in the league. As well as this he scored four goals in five starts in Liverpool’s recently unsuccessful Champions League campaign.
In terms of stacking up to the rest of the league he does boast impressive numbers. Despite being 15th in goals in the league, he attempts the second most shots per game only behind Fulham’s talisman Aleksander Mitrovic. This is more than Harry Kane, Erling Haaland and fellow Liverpool attacker Mohamed Salah who have all been traditional ‘shot monsters’ across their careers. Despite underperforming his league expected goals per 90 of 10.3, every player that has registered over 3.5 shots per game in the last three seasons in the Premier League has ended the season with at least 17 goals to their name.
Furthermore looking beyond the stats, Núñez possesses an extraordinarily rare physical ability in both pace and strength. He is a nightmare matchup for defenders that are either unable to outmuscle his frame or keep up with his pace and when he manages to score as anywhere near as clinically as he did in his last season at Benfica, he will become nigh impossible to stop.
While his game still has areas in which it needs improvement such as his technical ability with the ball at his feet and his overall passing game, there is no doubt his raw talent and promising statistical metrics will give him every opportunity to fulfil the promise he showed at Benfica. He is no Haaland and never should’ve been billed as one from the start, but he still has time to rival the likes of Haaland in the future.