Liverpool’s signing of Darwin Nunez is a booming statement of intent

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Liverpool's signing of Darwin Nunez is a booming statement of intent

Liverpool’s reaction to the news that Sadio Mane was looking to end his six-year stint at Anfield was swift and decisive.

If news of Mane’s desire to join Bayern Munich was a bitter pill for fans following their heartbreaking Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid, the identity of his successor quickly changed the mood.

How are you possibly trying to fill the void left by the loss of such an influential and revered attacker? The answer is, you’re spending a lot on one of the most exciting and explosive young strikers in European football.

The signing of Darwin Nunez from Benfica is a booming statement of intent. The deal is understood to be worth £64m initially, with a further £21m in potential add-ons.

The Uruguay international quickly became Liverpool’s top target and his services were secured with minimal fuss by new sporting director Julian Ward. No summer long saga here.

It certainly helped that the 22-year-old made a quick decision upon learning of Jurgen Klopp’s interest. There were other suitors, not least Manchester United and Atletico Madrid, but Nunez only wanted Liverpool. He left Benfica in no doubt about that.

The opportunity to play for Klopp was an important factor given the German’s track record of developing talent and elevating players to world class levels. Another reason was the prospect of being able to get off regularly at Anfield after the atmosphere was blown away during the Champions League quarter-final second leg in April.

That night also served to reinforce what Klopp and his coaching staff already believed – Nunez would be a perfect fit for Liverpool.

A chaotic 3-3 draw gave a much-changed Liverpool side a 6-4 aggregate lead, but the performance of Benfica’s struggling No9 left a lasting impression. With Virgil van Dijk rested, centre-backs Ibrahima Konate and Joe Gomez both struggled to deal with Nunez’s physicality and pace.

There was a stone cold finish past Alisson and Nunez would have scored another goal late had the Brazilian keeper not made a nice save.

Before this game, Klopp had been asked about the threat he posed. “Extremely handsome boy, huh?” he laughed. “And a decent player too. I knew it beforehand, of course, but he played pretty much in front of me with his tough fights with Konate. Physically strong, fast, was calm at the finish. Really good. If he’s healthy, he has a great career ahead of him.”

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Nunez faced Luis Diaz in the Champions League last season (Picture: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Eight days earlier, Nunez had reacted to Konate’s mistake in the first leg at the Estadio da Luz. His all-round performance on the occasion saw Van Dijk later cite him as one of his toughest opponents, comparing him to Manchester City’s new signing Erling Haaland. “A bit similar – very direct, fast, big, strong and it’s quite difficult to play against him,” said the Dutchman.

Liverpool’s recruitment team had eyed Nunez for a long time before he passed the two-legged audition against them.

His rise had caught their attention after joining Spanish second division side Almeria from Penarol in his homeland three years ago.

A tally of 16 goals in 30 league games convinced Benfica to pay a club-record €24m (£20.9m) for him in 2020. It turned out to be a wise investment.

There was a period of adjustment with his debut season in Portugal hampered by injuries, a bout of COVID-19 and coping with the expectation. A return of 14 goals in 44 appearances was unspectacular as he scored every 206 minutes.

However, after recovering from knee surgery last summer, Nunez went to the next level. Last season he scored 34 goals in 41 games in all competitions – one every 83 minutes. His tally of 26 league goals earned him the Bola de Prata as the Primeira Liga’s top scorer.

Liverpool have shortlisted attackers such as Jonathan David, Ismaila Sarr and Jarrod Bowen in recent years, but a look at Nunez’ highlights film for Benfica shows why he was the preferred choice.

There’s pounding headers, aided by his 6ft 2in frame, and composed melee finishes with both feet. He has a habit of being in the right place at the right time. Able to hold the ball up, he’s also adept at rushing behind defenses and showing the body needed to fend off opponents. He will lick his lips at the prospect of the end of deliveries from Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.

Nunez has been used mainly in the middle by Benfica but he’s more than a traditional No9. He acts just as effectively from the left, cutting inside to wreak havoc.

Liverpool believe he has all the qualities needed to make the Premier League shine and he represents the next step in the development of Klopp’s side.

The £45m signing of Diogo Jota from Wolves two years ago broke up the long-established front three of Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.

Luis Diaz then brought a new dimension with the notable impact he made following his £50m move from Porto in late January.

With Divock Origi joining AC Milan as a free agent, Takumi set to follow Minamino Mane through the exit door this summer and Firmino’s playing time dwindling, Liverpool needed a young, dominant, dynamic attacker capable of acting through the middle. This represents a long-term investment.

Nunez ticks all the boxes for Klopp as he has already delivered at a high level but has huge potential to raise the bar even higher. The character references were glowing too. Nunez’s humility, strong work ethic and burning desire to improve were among the feedback from those who know him best.

The club’s Spanish speakers will do everything they can to help him settle in, just as they did with Diaz.

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Nunez scored 34 goals in 41 games in all competitions for Benfica last season (Photo: Carlos Costa/AFP via Getty Images)

Some will inevitably question the wisdom of spending so much on a player who essentially has just one great season under his belt. It’s also a big step up from the Primeira Liga.

But Liverpool’s belief in his ability is fueled by the fact that he has already shone at the highest level in the Champions League. His tally of six goals in ten games in the 2021-22 competition included a brace against Barcelona, ​​an away goal at Bayern Munich and the winner against Ajax that sent Benfica into the Round of 16 against Liverpool.

Yes, there are rough edges in Nunez’s game that need ironing out. He’s a long way from the finished article, but that’s the kind of project Klopp and Pep Lijnders thrive on. If they had waited to snag him, he would have either gone elsewhere this summer or the asking price would have gone up further had he stayed there and enjoyed another productive campaign in Lisbon.

It is the second time in six months that Liverpool have invaded the Portuguese market and Diaz has certainly mastered promotion. The hope is that Nunez will follow suit.

Now that Mane’s replacement has been secured, Salah’s contract situation must now be clarified as a matter of priority. The newly crowned PFA Player of the Year, who is close to completing his existing contract, has yet to receive an improved offer since the end of the season.

Mane will be missed. But the show goes on – and a front three from Diaz, Nunez and Salah from the start of next season is delicious.

(Top Photo: Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

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