Over the last five months or so, two strikers have been playing for Liverpool. One of them is a Hanna-Barbera character. His boots are two sizes too big. His plodding movements in and around the penalty area—a length of grass which seems to alternately turn to ice or quicksand beneath his feet—are soundtracked by the circus music of an American Fotoplayer. He bears a passing resemblance to Andy Carroll. He has a bad habit of galloping beyond everyone and then getting surprised at how much space he’s found himself in, and generally plays his position as if you get partial credit for hitting the stanchions behind the net.
The other of the two strikers took his finish in literal stride when scoring in a 2-2 draw between Liverpool and Wolves in the FA Cup this past weekend. He now has a tally of 10 goals in all competitions this season, which would make him team’s second-leading scorer. He pretty much does all the things he’s supposed to do. He runs constantly, and you can almost never come away saying he had no effect on the match. He’s the sort of enterprising, all-action player that Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp seems to like. He’s often slinking into the blind spot of the last defender, making himself a nuisance for the back line, and does quite well when he receives decent service. When play isn’t building out of the back as well or as quickly as Liverpool would like, he’ll drop in and drive the ball forward himself.
The curiosity here is that these strikers are both wearing the no. 27 shirt, and are the same 23-year-old man. Darwin Núñez arrived from Benfica in the summer for £85 million following a breakout season in which he more than quadrupled his previous season’s goal tally in Primeira Liga (from six to 26) and helped the Portuguese side push Liverpool itself to the brink of elimination in a 10-goal Champions League thriller. This summer it seemed Núñez was joining the perennial second-best team in England, a team that had just come within a hair’s breadth of the Quadruple—which still no English team has ever done. But over the course of this year’s campaign, Liverpool have begun to look like a team grasping to remain relevant. They are 16 points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal, nevermind usual rival Manchester City, and just limped to an FA Cup third-round replay against a team that are second to last.
As a show of force and presence after a deflating 3-1 loss to Brenford in the Premier League last week, Klopp fielded a strong side in an effort to retain at least one of Liverpool’s trophies from last season. The new Wolves manager Julen Lopetegui even complained beforehand that his team would have two fewer days to prepare for the match—a classic tactic for lowering expectations when facing a team you clearly expect to lose to. But then Wolves didn’t lose. In the 26th minute, Liverpool looked as if they had suddenly lost connection; Wolves’ first goal via Goncalo Guedes was gifted to him by a dazed Alisson that had stroked the ball directly into the forward’s path. This came as a result of the normally secure Thiago Alacantra trying some lazy stepovers on the edge of his own box.
But back to Núñez, who just minutes earlier had attempted an outrageous overhead kick off of a deflected ball off the foot of a Wolves defender, who had charged down something between a pass or a shot from Mohamed Salah. A chance out of absolutely nothing. There is a temptation in the neutral viewer to suggest that if this had come off—a cat-like display of athleticism, which Núñez is capable of but has not yet utilized enough for Liverpool, it might have been the start of something special for the Uruguayan. Some kind of unarrestable snowball momentum eventually resulting in “world class” and “club legend” status. Until then, according to the denizens of the internet, he is a flop.
It’s hardly his fault he came to the Premier League at the same time as Erling Haaland, who has scored 21 goals in the league this season for Liverpool’s rivals in the northwest. It is difficult to ignore that, in contrast, Núñez leads the league by some distance in “missed big chances” per 90 minutes. The go-to Liverpudlian defense of this statistic is that in order to miss big chances, one must first get into dangerous positions, which is the sort of creative accounting that follows the Uruguayan who, again, is 23. A sense of incompleteness about Núñez is easily shifted to the promise of potential if you consider how close he is to being the ideal big man you need in a title push, ripped straight from a soft drink advert. He is broad-shouldered, a shade under 6-foot-2, religiously committed to the press, and has all the requisite tattoos. He causes the most havoc in the channel, but he’s capable of both winning a header and bringing the more inventive elements of Liverpool’s midfield into play.
This kind of haggling over Núñez’s ability will likely continue until he scores five goals against Real Madrid. Klopp claims to see “a lot of similarities” between the Uruguayan and Robert Lewandowski, whom he managed at Dortmund when Lewandowski pulled off an identical feat. Of course, the comparison was to illustrate how far Núñez has to go: “We had shooting sessions where he didn’t finish one.”
There are greater causes for concern at Liverpool, namely that defense: once well-marshaled and impregnable, they’ve already conceded nearly as many goals in the Premier League than in the whole of last season, and center back Virgil Van Dijk is sidelined with a significant hamstring injury. Without the solidity in the back, how can Liverpool throw everything else forward and put teams to the sword like they used to?
This makes moments of perfect synergy like Núñez’s FA Cup goal in the 45th minute all the more frustrating. Off a miscued clearance, Trent Alexander-Arnold darted into space down the right hand flank. Núñez took off, raising his hand for a pass as far back as the center circle, breaking out beyond the Wolves defenders. Alexander-Arnold whipped in a perfect early cross, beating out every defender, catching the keeper in no man’s land. Without breaking his stride, Núñez casually rolled the cross in off his shin into the far corner.
In the second half, he was anonymous.