Darwin Nunez's evolution a major boost for Liverpool as they face leaders Manchester City

Striker's exceptional form for Bielsa's Uruguay proves he is a player transformed this season

Darwin Nunez celebrates after scoring Liverpool's second goal against Nottingham Forest at Anfield on October 29. PA
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Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, walked into the club’s canteen the other day and found himself grinning at the convivial scene. Darwin Nunez, Alexis Mac Allister, Luis Diaz and Alisson were all in conversation.

“Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia and Brazil,” Klopp thought to himself, and, out loud, asked: “What’s the biggest newspaper in South America?” He reckoned it would make good use of a photo of the amiable grouping.

The same quartet flew back to England together from World Cup duty earlier this week with stories to share ahead of tomorrow’s Premier League summit meeting with Manchester City.

Emotional ones from Diaz, whose father was released from a terrifying kidnap ordeal in time to see his son put two goals past Alisson in Colombia’s 2-1 win over Brazil.

Four days later Mac Allister was part of the Argentina team who inflicted on Brazil a first ever home defeat in World Cup qualifying.

But perhaps the most fulfilled of Liverpool’s Latin Americans is Nunez, driver of Uruguay’s excellent momentum, twice on the scoresheet in Tuesday’s 3-0 victory over Bolivia having registered goals against each of Colombia, Argentina and Brazil in his previous outings, including wins over Argentina, the world champions, and Brazil. It’s form unprecedented in his international career and mirrors his growing impact for his club.

In effect, Nunez, signed in 2022 from Benfica for a fee that could rise close to €100 million, has been doubly promoted in the last five months. In the summer, he inherited the number nine jersey at Anfield from the departed and popular Roberto Firmino. In September, he saw a similar elevation in his status for the national team.

Uruguay appointed a new manager, the celebrated Marcelo Bielsa earlier this year, and when South America’s World Cup 2026 qualifying marathon began, he did not call up Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, the two strikers, both 36, who have been emblematic for over a decade with more than 270 caps and 120 goals between them.

The decision was not so definitive that Bielsa had called time on their international careers – he recalled Suarez for this month’s squad – but with Nunez leading the line so effectively, and Uruguay climbing to just a point beneath Argentina in the qualifying table, there is a fresh hierarchy.

Suarez, on the bench for the win over Argentina last week and off it for the last 17 minutes of the win in Bolivia, acknowledged as much: “I have, in Darwin, one of the best number nines in the world ahead of me,” said Suarez, once of Liverpool now of Brazil’s Gremio. He added he was content to play whatever supporting role to Nunez that Bielsa deems appropriate.

The responsibilities entrusted by Bielsa to Nunez, within what the striker describes as Uruguay’s “young group of high-quality players” are many.

This is a coach whose best teams – Bielsa’s Chile at the 2010 World Cup; his Athletic Bilbao and the Leeds United he guided up into the Premier League – required famously high levels of energy and aggression while out of possession, from their forwards.

“His ideas are clear,” Nunez told reporters in Montevideo. “He asks for a strong pressing game, and at the same time for me to keep making runs behind the opposition defence. It’s demanding for a striker but I think I’m adapting to the sort of game Marcelo wants.”

And indeed to the sort of briefings Nunez's Uruguay team-mates are given.

“I’ve been struck by the intensity he wants,” said Ronald Araujo, Barcelona’s dynamic Uruguay defender. “When I’m in my defensive zone, my job is to bring the ball out and look for the direct pass to Darwin, who never stops running.”

It is not so distinct from what Klopp’s Liverpool seek: Quick transitions to an exceptional finisher, with the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold picking out the same option Araujo is encouraged to look for.

Mostly, Liverpool’s chief target for the swift counter-attack would be Mohamed Salah, operating from the right but moving easily into the middle. But with Nunez now used more regularly at centre-forward, in a distinct way to the deeper-lying Firmino, the Uruguayan has found a groove.

In his first season in England he was often deployed in a wide attacking role; since August, in his number nine jersey, he has played almost solely as a number nine. The statistics tell the story: In 2022/23 Nunez’s ratio of minutes to combined goals and assists was one every 124 minutes; this term, he scores or sets up a goal twice as often.

The criticism of his inconsistent finishing, which punctuated his debut campaign for Liverpool, has quietened. The fact Nunez arrived, with a weighty price tag, in the Premier League at the same time as Erling Haaland did will forever cast a daunting shadow of comparison.

If Nunez were to help Liverpool leapfrog Haaland’s City at the top of the table, that comparison would feel far less burdensome.

Updated: November 24, 2023, 12:20 PM