A trip to Portugal became an inspired recruitment strategy. Tormented defenders had first-hand evidence that a young forward was irrepressible; so good, in fact, that the Premier League giants had to sign him. And, after a 2003 friendly against Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United’s coach was delayed while the manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, tied up the deal for the emerging Cristiano Ronaldo.
Fast forward the best part of two decades and there are some differences. This time, the destination is not Old Trafford – 19 years ago, a young Ronaldo’s other suitors included Gerard Houllier and Arsene Wenger – and it has taken Liverpool several weeks to complete a move for Darwin Nunez.
But there is the same sense that a transfer comes endorsed by defenders who are relieved they will only have to face the newcomer in training. Virgil van Dijk, a man whose standards are invariably high and whose comments tend to be measured, in May described Nunez as one of the toughest forwards he has faced. Goals in either leg of the Champions League quarter-final were not enough to stop Liverpool from progressing, but amounted to a compelling job interview. With Van Dijk rested, Nunez tormented the Dutchman’s team-mates at Anfield.
Fast, direct and relentless, he looked a Liverpool-type forward in Liverpool.
Now he is becoming Liverpool’s most expensive forward; if add-ons taking his overall fee up towards £85 million are triggered, he will replace Van Dijk as their record signing.
He may have only been truly potent for one season – this particular Darwin has evolved quickly – but the other omens are auspicious: their last signing from Portugal, Luis Diaz, shared some similar characteristics, looked a natural fit and was an instant hit. Had Diaz remained with Porto for the rest of the season, he would probably have been the league’s second top scorer; second to Nunez, who led the way with 26.
His Champions League goals, including a brace against Barcelona, strikes against Bayern Munich and Ajax, suggested he is no flat-track bully. Apart from finding the net in either encounter with Liverpool, he had two goals disallowed for offside. If it showed he plays on the shoulder of the last defender, that can be a hallmark of many a Jurgen Klopp forward.
Nunez is both a striker and yet a Klopp winger. He often played off the target man Roman Yaremchuk for Benfica. In Klopp’s inverted forward line, the nominal wide men can be the most advanced duo. Nunez’s fondness for the inside-left channel, coupled with his speed, makes him a narrow, inverted winger. He is no stranger to the far-post tap-in – which, given the supply line from Liverpool’s right flank, may bode well – and some of his headed goals evoke his compatriot Edinson Cavani; that Sadio Mane is excellent in the air adds to the impression he is natural replacement for the Bayern Munich target.
The defining features of a Klopp forward can include the ability to get into scoring positions. If Nunez can repeat his form from last year, when he got 26 goals from an xG of 15.73 in the Portuguese league, he may be the most clinical of the lot.
And yet he may be a Klopp forward, but not a Pep one. Pep Guardiola’s wingers can be passers, midfielders. Nunez’s pass completion rate in the last year is just 54.0 percent; StatsBomb rank him in the bottom one percent of forwards for shot-creating actions. It is all evidence of his directness, but Klopp’s wide men are not charged with playing prominent parts in the build-up.
Nunez is seven years Mane’s junior and the Senegalese’s wish to leave is accelerating the transition to Klopp’s second team at Anfield. A famous front three who all turn 30 within a nine-month period represented a ticking timebomb; now, while Mohamed Salah’s expiring contract remains an issue, there is a futuristic trio with a Portuguese theme, in Diogo Jota and the former Primeira Liga duo of Diaz and Nunez.
It points to the sway of the new director of football Julian Ward, who used to work for the Portuguese Football Federation, and the former Porto coach Pep Lijnders. Klopp is increasingly influenced by his precocious assistant. The German is a great communicator but does not speak Spanish or Portuguese; Lijnders does, rendering him more important with Diaz and Nunez.
Liverpool’s statistically-minded owners may feel they were long on the right track in the transfer market. Their record has been excellent in the last few years. Before then, they identified players such as Alexis Sanchez and Willian, but lost out to Premier League rivals with greater pulling power.
Now they have taken the Tottenham target Diaz and Nunez, who was on United’s radar, both at the expense of clubs then outside the Champions League. There was a time when the Ferguson factor formed part of United’s allure. Now Nunez offers proof of Liverpool’s draw. In the battle to secure his signature, the fittest have survived. It all feels rather Darwinian.