The last time Darwin Nunez left Anfield before the final whistle, there was no confirmation from Jurgen Klopp. Not the hug or the bright smile, none of the typical German exuberance. As Nunez trotted off in disfavor, his home debut curtailed by a red card, Klopp, the manager who couldn’t forget the Uruguayan tormenting his defense in Benfica colors, tried not to notice him.
Seven weeks later, a less explosive exit brought greater show affection. Klopp briefly enveloped the substitute striker and then praised him. The redeeming story belonged to Trent Alexander-Arnold, a misguided defender-turned-brilliant goalscorer, not Nunez. He was wasteful, slowed down by a footballing pensioner on a night when he could have scored a hat-trick. His wait for a first Anfield goal continues.
But he brought the kind of genuine effort that Klopp likes. A forward doubled as the leader of the press, as a revised formation meant the attackers took over much of the defence. A player whose only other Anfield start against Crystal Palace was ended by Glasgow’s headbutt on Joachim Andersen was reintegrated against Glasgow’s Rangers. For the first time in a game Nunez started, Liverpool won.
And Nunez’s launch is newsworthy in itself. In every game he doesn’t have there have been valid reasons: a three-game ban, a minor injury at the weekend, Roberto Firmino’s form, Klopp’s right choice of favoring Diogo Jota against Ajax, the questions about his temper, which he could have declared in absentia in Naples. But the cumulative effect was that he had started less frequently than 36-year-old James Milner, less than a third the number of 19-year-old Harvey Elliott. Forget the $64k question, Nunez appeared to be Liverpool’s £64m conundrum.
And then, in a time of contention, an expensive answer. Klopp recalibrated Liverpool to 4-2-3-1 – although Alexander-Arnold described it as “a basic 4-4-2” and it was in a 4-2-4 form when they pressed – and trusted Nunez. He liked what he saw. “To be honest the way the guys worked together up front was extremely, extremely good for just one session working on it,” he said. “We’ve never done that before. We’ve had one session now, and it was low-intensity because we’ve only played recently.”
When Nunez displayed pent-up energy, which manifested itself in violent behavior towards Palace, this brought incessant running. It’s one of the defining characteristics of a Klopp striker: the other is getting into goalscoring positions. That’s why Diogo Jota suited us so well. Because of this, Mohamed Salah has an annual competition with Harry Kane to have the most shots in the Premier League.
Nunez is developing into a similar shotaholic. He had six in his previous Everton start. On his return he had another six. Four were saved by 40-year-old Allan McGregor and if Nunez perhaps lacked precision and got a couple too close to the keeper, it still required a fine acrobatic display to keep him at bay.
Klopp expressed calm confidence that the goals will come. “We can see that,” he said. “You saw how good he is as a striker to be constantly in situations like this. Everyone saw tonight that this is going to happen. So all good.”
Which so far wouldn’t be a two-word summary of Nunez’s career at Liverpool. But part of Klopp’s skill lies in his skills as a communicator and he can be stripped of his superpower when dealing with Nunez. Even when they had a long conversation on Sunday, it required Pep Lijnders’ skills as an interpreter. Klopp’s message then was to remain calm, something Nunez uniquely failed to do against Palace.
But if his goals against Manchester City and Fulham in his first two substitute games gave him a stunning start, what followed was interrupted, disappointing and in some ways almost threatening. Yet while many of Klopp’s best signings have become instant fixtures, whether Alisson or Virgil van Dijk, Sadio Mane or Salah, there is a subcategory of those who spent their time on the fringes and then became mainstays, like Fabinho and AndyRobertson.
There is an art to introducing a player to the team. Perhaps the old-fashioned, physical feel of a Battle of Britain meant Nunez was suited for Rangers, perhaps Klopp wanted a No.9 to push them back. He may have felt that the opponent’s lower level might make it easier for Nunez to get back on track. At least in that he failed.
The second leg could offer another chance. In terms of attacking pecking order, the more significant picks will be against Arsenal and City when he’s less likely to field four forwards. Then Nunez will probably be back on the bench. But after the triple disappointment of being sent off, suspended and coming on, it feels more like a way back into the squad.
https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/liverpool-darwin-nunez-rangers-champions-league-b2195818.html Liverpool v Rangers: Resurgent Darwin Nunez shows signs of redemption after a rocky start