A goal on his debut. Then a booking on his debut. A goal and an assist on his first Premier League appearance. A straight red card on his Anfield bow. Nobody would easily persuade Darwin Nunez that he landed in English football incognito or entirely smoothly.
On Wednesday evening, as Darwin lined up in a Liverpool starting XI for the eighth time since he signed for the club in a deal that could make him the most expensive footballer ever to join them, supporters of visiting West Ham jeered the Uruguayan in terms that may have needed interpreting for him to understand them.
He has not yet mastered English and might not, being only 23 and fresh to the folklore of the Premier League, have fully appreciated the nuance of away fans chants comparing him unfavourably to Andy Carroll, a former target man for both Liverpool and West Ham with a reputation for inconsistency, among other characteristics.
Darwin promptly scored an excellent target-man goal, a header from a cross, to settle the destiny of all three points, earn Liverpool a second successive 1-0 victory and give their manager Jurgen Klopp plenty to smile about as he plans for Saturday’s trip to Nottingham Forest, the team with the poorest goal-difference in the division. “He has arrived, 100 per cent,” declared Klopp of Darwin, as the player prefers to be known, referenced by his first name, like you would address a friend.
The striker, noted Klopp, is now gathering due admiration and allies with statistics to back him up. His three-match suspension, following the bad-tempered lash-out at Crystal Palace’s Joachim Andersen after he had barely started his Liverpool career, is behind him. The misses in front of goal are being balanced with hits and some real momentum.
His goal against West Ham was “important,” said the Liverpool manager, “he has now scored a couple of times in the last few games. The numbers are fine.” They read: three goals in three starts, across competitions, and, importantly, a first goal at Anfield, where every Liverpool centre-forward needs the crowd to be a friend. He followed up his impactful aggression coming off the bench against Manchester City on Sunday with a portfolio of efforts against West Ham that advertised not only his range of skills but his complicity with teammates.
There was a cleanly struck volley, well saved by Lukasz Fabianski, to do justice to a trademark long pass from Thiago Alcantara. There was a thumping left-foot effort against the post and his match-winning leap to meet Konstantinos Tsimikas’s cross and, under pressure, place his header. “It was a real battle in the air - the goal is exceptional,” thought Klopp, “and the other chances were exceptional.”
Only City’s Erling Haaland has averaged more shots per game in the Premier League this season than Darwin. His difficulty is that being measured against Haaland is an unforgiving lens. That comparison was always going to stalk Darwin, who is only 11 months Haaland’s senior, and a big, strong centre-forward landing in Merseyside in the same summer the Norwegian came to Manchester. The comparison, in terms of goals, is stark. Haaland has 20 goals already in a City jersey, Darwin five for Liverpool.
But their trajectories are distinct. Three years ago Haaland had already scored a Champions League hat-trick. Three years ago, Darwin had only just made his debut in Europe, in the Spanish second division, for Almeria. His stepping stone to Liverpool would be Benfica, grandees of only the sixth-strongest domestic league in Europe. Haaland, born in Leeds and fluent in English, joined City after two-and-a-half seasons at Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund.
Liverpool v West Ham ratings
“He’s really young and has felt a little bit homesick,” acknowledged Klopp, who took Darwin off just before the hour against West Ham as a precaution because the player had reported a tightness in his hamstring at half-time. He expects him to be fit for the weekend.
“We must be careful with the boys and he is an exceptional talent,” added Klopp, “we see that in the runs, the physicality, the speed, the finishing skills. He has a good technique but sometimes he’s in a rush so the first contact goes a little bit. But when you’re young you have time to develop. We’re working on that.”
“He’s learning the way we play,” added Virgil van Dijk, the Liverpool defender who has a daily, close-up view in training of all Darwin’s gifts. “He’s the modern-day striker that causes defenders problems. You see his runs in behind and his build-up play is getting better. I think he has so much potential.”