IIf you think the pressure of a move to one of the world’s elite clubs – with an eventual cost potentially reaching the €100m mark – could weigh heavily on Darwin Núñez, then you have a lot to learn about Liverpool’s new striker. The Uruguayan has always been ready for that. His entire – and relatively brief, so far – career in Europe has been an unmistakable line of pressure and expectation, ever since Spanish second-tier newcomer Almería signed him for a fee in excess of €5.5m shortly after its 20th anniversary in 2019.
This initial leap from his first professional club, Peñarol, was, according to Núñez himself, motivated by his ambition to support his family, always saying that he would buy a substantial house for his mother after getting his first big deal. “When I was transferred to Almeria, that’s what I did – I bought six hectares of land and gave it to her,” he said in an interview with Uefa Champions League Weekly in February.
Since then, its pace of progress – and ability to overcome setbacks – has meant that none of its stops really offer the possibility of being much more than transitory. His arrival at Anfield, taking him to the top of the game before he even turned 23 at the end of the month, gives him the opportunity to start sinking fully into an elite career and begin satisfying a seemingly insatiable appetite.
It is likely that Núñez will accept this calmly. Upon arriving in Almería, he embraced the leadership of Turki al-Sheikh’s high-profile, well-funded project, scoring 16 times despite working with four coaches in a chaotic environment. When Benfica swept him just over a year after his arrival, they did so at the head of a series of competitions, with Premier League and French clubs forcing the Portuguese club to spend a national record €24m to win it. . Whether the (seemingly easily achievable) bonuses in the Liverpool deal are triggered or not, Núñez will be the second most profitable sale in Benfica’s history, ahead of the transfer of Rúben Dias to Manchester City and behind only the sale of João Félix in 2019 to Atlético Madrid for €120m. By now, he’s more than used to the weight.
“With me Darwin would only have gone to 150 million euros,” former club president Luís Filipe Vieira said in an interview with Portuguese daily A Bola this week, referring to the striker’s contract termination clause. Given the bombastic tone of his rhetoric in the play, it might have seemed a pointless boast, but we’d been here before. Jorge Jesus said he expected Núñez’s eventual sale price to surpass João Félix’s after his first goals for the club in 2020, a Europa League hat-trick against Lech Poznan and his former Almería manager José Gomes agreed this year.
If coaches tend to be wary of young players, Núñez’s talent has been so impossible to hide that it has rarely been the subject of such treatment. His style of play, attacking defenders like a bull and dragging them into wide channels, always suggested broad shoulders, as did his toughness. His first season at Benfica was no cakewalk, with just six league goals, a debilitating knee disease and considerable fan frustration. Núñez contributed 10 assists, before last season’s breakthrough: 26 in 24 LaLiga matches in a still underperforming Benfica side, as well as six in six Champions League matches, including a one-man demolition from Barcelona and a draw at Anfield.
In those difficult times, Jesus rarely spared him public criticism, despite being “just a child,” and their relationship often bordered on irritation. “Every day he shows me new things, [and] points out things that I lack in certain situations,” Núñez acknowledged last year. Gomes said publicly: “He has to prepare better in the moment before receiving the ball, especially when he is in the center aisle [of the pitch].” The potential is so high that a coach’s need for improvement is overwhelming.
If there’s one note of caution, it’s that Núñez’s high-impact style could end up taking a toll on him in the Premier League. Like another former Kop idol, Fernando Torres, Núñez plays with everything he has, spiritually and physically. Sometimes you wonder if it’s too much. “I can’t imagine what state I’ll be in five or six years if I keep playing here,” Torres said in 2010, and Núñez is not the type of character who deals with half measures. Jürgen Klopp will need to manage it carefully.
However, if his career so far is anything to go by, Núñez is unlikely to ponder much of it. He’s not the type to hold ceremony, which, as Luis Díaz, also a League alumnus, has shown is the best way to fit into Klopp’s exciting squad.