If news of Mane’s desire to join Bayern Munich was a bitter pill for supporters to swallow following the heartbreaking Champions League final defeat by real Madridthe identity of his replacement quickly transformed the mood.
How are you trying to fill the void created by the loss of such an influential and beloved striker? The answer is: you spend big on one of the most exciting and explosive young strikers in European football.
Benfica’s Darwin Nunez signing is a growing statement of intent. The deal is believed to be worth £64m with a further £21m in potential add-ons.
The Uruguay international quickly became Liverpool’s top target and his services were secured by new sporting director Julian Ward with a minimum of headache. No summer saga here.
—Liverpool FC (@LFC) June 14, 2022
It certainly helped that once the 22-year-old learned of Jurgen Klopp’s interest, his decision was made quickly. There were other suitors, not least Manchester United and Atletico Madrid, but Nunez only wanted Liverpool. He left Benfica without a doubt about it.
The opportunity to play for Klopp was a major factor given the German’s track record of developing talent and elevating players to the world-class category. Another was the prospect of stepping out at Anfield on a regular basis, having been blown away by the atmosphere in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-finals in April.
That night also served to reinforce what Klopp and his coaching staff already believed – Nunez would be the perfect fit for Liverpool.
A chaotic 3-3 draw saw a very different Liverpool side advance 6-4 on aggregate, but the performance of Benfica’s combative No.9 left a lasting impression. With Virgil van Dijk rested, central defenders Ibrahima Konate and Joe Gomez both had issues with Nunez’ physique and pace.
There’s been a frosty end past Alisson and Nunez would have had another late goal had it not been for a fine sprawling save from the Brazilian keeper.
Before this game, Klopp was asked about the threat he posed. “Very handsome boy, huh? ” he’s laughing. “And a decent player too. I knew that before of course but he pretty much played ahead of me with his tough battles with Konate. Physically strong, quick, was calm around his arrival. Very good. If he’s in good shape health, it is a great career that is offered to him.
Eight days earlier, Nunez jumped on Konate’s mistake to score in the first leg at the Estadio da Luz. His all-around display on this occasion led Van Dijk to later describe him as one of his toughest opponents, comparing him to Manchester City’s new boy Erling Haaland. “A bit similar – very direct, fast, big, strong and it’s quite difficult to play against him,” said the Dutchman.
The Liverpool recruitment team had been watching Nunez closely long before he went two-legged against them.
His rise had caught their attention after he joined Spanish second-tier club Almeria de Penarol in his native country three years ago.
A tally of 16 goals in 30 league appearances convinced Benfica to pay a club-record €24m (£20.9m) for him in 2020. It proved to be a wise investment.
There was a period of adjustment with his first season in Portugal hampered by injuries, a bout of COVID-19 and a grip on expectation levels. A comeback of 14 goals in 44 appearances was unspectacular as he found the net every 206 minutes.
However, after recovering from knee surgery last summer, Nunez has taken it to the next level. Last season he scored 34 goals in 41 games in all competitions, one every 83 minutes. His tally of 26 league goals earned him the Bola de Prata as the Primeira Liga’s top scorer.
There are hard-hitting headers, aided by his 6-foot-2 frame, and composed close-range finishes with both feet. He is used to being in the right place at the right time. He can hold the ball and he’s also adept at bursting behind defences, showcasing the physique needed to hold opponents back. He will lick his lips at the prospect of reaching the end of the deliveries of Trent Alexandre-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
Mainly, Nunez was used in the middle by Benfica, but he is more than a conventional No.9. He is equally effective operating from the left as he cuts inside to wreak havoc.
Liverpool believe they have all the qualities required to light up the premier league and he represents the next step in the evolution of Klopp’s team.
Luis Diaz then brought a new dimension with the remarkable impact he made following his £50million move from Porto at the end of January.
With Divock Original join AC Milan as a free agent, Takumi Minamino set to follow Mane out the way out this summer and with Firmino’s game time dwindling, Liverpool needed a dynamic and dominant young striker who could operate through the centre. This represents a long-term investment.
Nunez ticks all the boxes for Klopp in terms of having already delivered at a high level but with huge potential to raise the bar even further. The character references were also brilliant. Nunez’s humility, strong work ethic and burning desire to improve are among the comments of those who know him best.
The Spanish speakers at the club will do all they can to help him settle in, just like they did for Diaz.
Some will inevitably question the wisdom of spending so much on a player who essentially only has one big season under his belt. It’s also a big step up from the Primeira Liga.
But Liverpool’s confidence in his abilities is fueled by the fact that he has already shone at the highest level in the Champions League. His tally of six goals in 10 games in the competition in 2021-22 included a brace against Barcelonaa goal at Bayern Munich and the winner against Ajax that took Benfica through to the round of 16 against Liverpool.
Yes, there are some rough edges in Nunez’s game that need to be ironed out. It’s far from the finished article, but it’s the kind of project Klopp and Pep Lijnders thrive on. Had they waited to sign him, he would have either gone elsewhere this summer or the asking price would have continued to climb had he stayed put and enjoyed another prolific campaign in Lisbon.
It’s the second time in six months that Liverpool have raided the Portuguese market and Diaz has certainly handled the pace with aplomb. The hope is that Nunez will follow suit.
With Mane’s replacement secured, the priority must now be to sort out Salah’s contract situation. The new PFA Player of the Year, who is about to enter the final year of his existing contract, is yet to receive an improved offer since the end of the season.
Mané will be missed. But the show goes on – and a top three of Diaz, Nunez and Salah from the start of next season is tantalizing.
(Top photo: Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
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