Darwin Nunez may have only played 18 minutes in Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Manchester City but his impact has rarely been equalled.
Tactical trends and playing styles always go in waves in football. We are in an era where top teams employ centre-forwards who have minimal involvement in the match aside from trying to put the ball in the net.
Much was made of Romelu Lukaku only having seven touches in a match at Crystal Palace earlier this year, yet his side won the game. Erling Haaland had just eight touches in Manchester City’s 4-0 victory over Bournemouth in August and still had time to assist the opening goal. Across town, Manchester United’s main plan last season was to get goals from Cristiano Ronaldo while ignoring the fact he offered very little else and prevented them from pressing well.
Liverpool almost had their own ‘low involvement, high impact’ forward on Sunday afternoon in their 1-0 win against City. Darwin Nunez replaced Roberto Firmino in the 72 nd minute and almost left an unforgettable mark upon the match despite barely touching the ball.
People who are sceptical about the Uruguayan’s ability and rival fans looking to score banter points will have delighted in the counter attack which Liverpool did not convert thanks to Nunez failing to pass. But if you focus on what he offered in his cameo appearance, it was truly remarkable.
Entering the fray four minutes prior to the only goal of the game, Nunez had not yet been involved in any real sense when Mohamed Salah delivered the decisive moment. Even though the former Benfica man barely had any touches after that, they were all problematic for the visitors.
Nunez’ first involvement was to recover the ball around the edge of the Reds’ defensive third. From there he powered forward and unleashed a shot which went wide of Ederson’s left-hand goalpost. It clearly pleased Jurgen Klopp, who applauded and bellowed “keep going, keep going.”
Nine minutes later there was a near-identical situation, with the 23-year-old winning possession once again and charging up field. However, this was the break of which he should have made more. A pass to Salah looked the best option yet Nunez instead took a tame shot which was easily blocked.
Once again, he had taken the threat to City though. Liverpool’s number 27 carried the ball a cumulative total of 146 yards towards goal, the most of any Reds player in the match. Clearly the visitors’ need to push forward for an equaliser left them open to this kind of move, but Nunez still deserves credit for recapturing the ball twice and getting it to the edge of the penalty box.
And he wasn’t done there on that front either. In stoppage time, the Uruguayan charged forward from midfield yet again, dribbled past Manuel Akanji (one of only three successful take-ons any Liverpool player made in the match) and crossed to create a clear-cut chance for Trent Alexander-Arnold. There was still time for Nunez to then have a similar value opportunity of his own, though while he lifted the ball past the goalkeeper the effort was off target.
Different data companies count different things for touches. Opta say the summer signing had eight ( via WhoScored ), Statsbomb claim seven ( via FBRef ). The difference is immaterial. To have three shots and create the joint-highest value chance of the match ( per Understat ) is a phenomenal impact from such little involvement.
In principle, such efforts from the bench are not without precedent. When Liverpool beat Atletico Madrid 2-0 last season, Divock Origi had three shots in a 13-minute cameo. But he didn’t also create a chance, and the Belgian’s attacking output equalled 0.1 expected goals when Nunez offered 0.6 against City.
Clearly his efforts could have delivered more. Nunez’ decision making is certainly questionable at times and rarely more so than it was in his key moments on Sunday. But he was in dangerous positions largely through his own making and against one of the best football teams in the world. Klopp’s decision to hold him back for when City were tiring was fully vindicated.
With Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota both injured, Darwin could start on the left this week, just as he did at times for Benfica. With a record of 11 goals and two assists from five league appearances in that position last season, nobody should’ve been surprised at his showing against the reigning league champions.