Gollum monologues and newborn giraffes: why Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez isn’t as bad as you think
The Liverpool striker has been making headlines again this season.
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Inside Darwin Nunez, there are two wolves. One of them is a menacing predator, a folkloric conjuror capable of producing fleeting divinity from seeming nothingness. The other is an avant garde performance artist with a vehement aversion to simplicity and an apparent phobia of open goals. The innate captivation in the Uruguayan’s game comes from never knowing, moment to moment, which of these beasts is going to rear its head. Honestly, you suspect that he doesn’t have a clue either.
To see the Liverpool striker streak through a fractured opposition defence is to imagine a kind of split, Gollum-esque inner monologue; ‘Wicked, tricksy, sneaky Master Klopp. Put it wide of the post, Preciousssssss... No, not Master! Master Klopp is our friend... You don’t have any friendssssss...’. Nunez also gives off the distinct impression that he is never wholly in control of all of his limbs at the same time. He is like a newborn giraffe, or the protagonist in a body swap farce involving an elite athlete and a clumsy octopus. Presumably there is a particularly dexterous cephalopod somewhere in a mild strait of the Atlantic Ocean scissor kicking errant blowfish through rectangular gaps in coral reefs, like a sort of Freaky Friday meets The Little Mermaid situation.
And yet, when whichever celestial bodies that dictate his peculiarities align, he is, frankly speaking, magnificent. In many respects, the past week has been a perfect illustration of Nunez, his zeniths, and his foibles. First there was the wonder goal against Bournemouth - initially miscontrolled, then clunkily wrangled and curled beyond the despairing grasp of a powerless goalkeeper. Then there was the incalculable miss against Luton Town - admittedly called offside but nonetheless point blank and utterly, utterly outrageous. Few players boast a spectrum of influence as broad as Nunez’s, and few possess his instinctive knack for comedic timing.
But in a climate of instant judgement and hyperbolic meme-ification, just how much scorn does he deserve to shoulder? Well, perhaps not that much. Yes, the blunders are glaring, and yes, it can be hard not to smirk as he cannons a shot of the upright from six yards out and into the path of a grateful, waiting teammate, but the reality is that Nunez is performing relatively well at the present moment in time.
As things stand, the South American has scored seven goals in 15 outings across all competitions for Liverpool this season. In total, his xG for the campaign sits at 7.8, meaning that, granted, he is under-producing, but only to the tune of 0.8 strikes. Divide that by 15 and it works out at around 0.053 spurned goals per game; hardly a catastrophe.
Then you look at his shot accuracy, and again, it’s not all that bad. An average of 43.2% may seem low to the naked eye, but when you consider that Mo Salah, Liverpool’s de facto creative mastermind, boasts an average less than 2% higher, you start to wonder whether it might not be so terrible after all. Once again, there is room for improvement, but Nunez’s plight is hardly drastic.
Broaden the scope further still, and his contributions become even more apparent; so far this term, the Uruguayan has averaged more successful dribbles, more progressive runs, and more touches in the opposition box than his Egyptian teammate. He may be unorthodox, but Nunez is also a certified headache, a ‘defender’s nightmare’, as Daniel Sturridge christened him on yesterday’s Monday Night Football.
The raw materials are there in abundance - the pace, the willingness to run in behind, the habitual, impulsive positioning. All that is missing is a measure of composure, a refined application. With time and with the proper coaching, those things should come; at 24, Nunez is hardly a footballing spinster. Patience and understanding will be key, although you could already argue that we are seeing a better version of the former Benfica man than we have at any other point during his time at Anfield. If he can just tidy up some of those messy edges, Nunez’s potential may well be near limitless.