Ahead of their Champions League clash against Liverpool Pete Sharland looks at Benfica forward Darwin Nunez. With the help of Tom Kundert from Portugoal and Aaron Barton of Proxima Jornada, Sharland analyses the strengths and weaknesses of Nunez’s game, as well as which team might be the best fit when he eventually moves in the summer.
Most Liverpool fans would be lying to you if they said they didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when the draw for the Champions League quarter-finals were made.
There are very much “no easy ties” at this stage of the competition but it is also true that it isn’t too often that a team like Benfica (or Villarreal) get to the quarter-finals. Furthermore this Benfica side isn’t quite at the level of the likes of Ajax or Monaco, both of whom made semi-final runs in the past few years.
But, there is at least one man who will give Liverpool pause for thought, and that player is Uruguayan forward Darwin Nunez.
You probably know Nunez from being one of the ever-presents in the transfer rumour mill and there’s a good chance that this summer he will be swapping Lisbon for pastures new.
To help get a better picture of Nunez we’ve watched some video and got in touch with some old friends. You may remember Tom Kundert, founder of Portugoal as well as Aaron Barton who created Proxima Jornada from our feature on Sporting CP’s title win last year. Now they return to give the lowdown on Nunez, make sure to give them a follow on Twitter for all your Portuguese football needs.
First thing to make clear. It’s almost certain that Nunez will move this coming summer. Whether teams will pay Benfica’s asking price (that is reportedly up to €80 million now) remains to be seen but all signs point to a sale. One other thing that is probably worth noting is that reports in Portugal are saying that ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes is making a move to try and bring Nunez into his agency. Nunez’s deal with his current representative expires in the summer and Mendes is poised to swoop.
With that out of the way, let’s start with the strengths. The first thing you’re going to notice when you put on some tape of Nunez is the sheer size of the lad. He’s listed at around 6”2 but he is one of those players who just “feels” bigger than he officially is. It’s not just that he’s big either, Nunez is quick, deceptively quick. Not only is he quick at top speed (thank you long legs) he is also surprisingly quick from the go, that often can leave opposing defenders in his wake as they simply don’t expect it.
“He’s a real handful,” agrees Kundert. “Big, busy, energetic forward, with a fantastic burst of acceleration, good technical ability, can play across the front line.
“He’s usually pretty central but also works the wings well, has provided several assists by driving diagonally towards goal from wide positions then crossing or cutting the ball back.
“Decent in the air, and an ice-cool penalty taker. You could say he’s a little bit of an Mbappe light – although obviously a long way off that absolute elite level.”
Barton adds “he’s not like a typical penalty box forward striker like a six yard box striker. He will try and do that but also go out wide and try to play quick one-twos whether that be with players in the centre or his full-back and try and get round the outside so he can put a cross in.”
Barton believes that the goal Nunez scored against Barcelona in the Champions League group stage is the perfect example of what the Uruguayan’s game is all about. In the clip you can see below, Nunez peels off the shoulders of the defender onto a ball over the top and chase it into the wide corner. He then pulls it back, cuts inside and fires home at the near post.
When you watch some of the goals he’s scored it’s hard not to feel that he is trying to break the ball in two he hits it with so much force.
“Sometimes I say about his power, that his shooting style is actually very similar to him as a player,” explains Barton. “Like everything that he does, it is very powerful, it’s very directed, he will tend to try and rifle it into the top corner rather than, you know, try and be a bit cuter.
“He will always try and rocket it in.
“I think that just epitomises him as a player. He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s powerful. His shooting is exactly like that, and, crucially, it’s gotten better since he moved to Portugal.”
Look, before we get carried away, this is not Erling Haaland 2.0. Nunez still has work to do. Some of the clips you watch will have you screaming at your laptop as he ignores better options to try and keep a dribble going or try and get a shot off.
“Ideally, I think another season in Portugal would do him good to really become the main man at the club and fine-tune his finishing,” says Kundert.
Nunez had a bit of a rough time in the 2020-21 season as he suffered with both injuries and Covid-19. The 2021-22 season has been a fine return to form but there isn’t the biggest body of work for teams who want to sign him.
“There’s quite a big section of the supporters that still aren’t convinced by Nunez,” says Barton. “I’ve seen it from friends who are supporters and on social media as well. I think there’s a feeling that if they can get a lot of money for him they should go for it. They’ve got someone like Goncalo Ramos there, who’s an exciting, young Portuguese forward, current U21 international.”
Barton points out that Nunez’s record in the big games isn’t the best. He hasn’t scored against either Porto or Sporting CP even though he has done very well in Europe.
“He often shoots when he should pass and passes when he should shoot. He’s a bit rushed when he gets close to goal,” adds Kundert.
But Kundert does believe that he would be a success in any of the major leagues and the raw talent that is clearly there is absolutely worth taking a gamble on, especially for a club that misses out on Haaland or was never in the discussion.
It seems that it will come down to a straight shoot-out between Barcelona and a bunch of Premier League sides based on current reporting.
West Ham feels like another solid move, the work David Moyes has done with Jarrod Bowen proves he could help polish Nunez’s rough edges. It’s hard to recommend Manchester United as a destination until the new manager is known and Newcastle United feel like at best a sideways move.
Barcelona remain a super intriguing option, particularly because of he might dovetail with someone like Ansu Fati. Plus he could play wider if Xavi wanted to keep using Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as the central striker. You’d have to wonder whether Barca can justify it financially given he’s still pretty raw but it could be a game-changing signing for the Xavi revolution.
It’s worth pointing out that Nunez was originally targeted by Barcelona while he was with Almeria in Spain’s second division. Uruguay and Barca great Suarez recommended Nunez to the team but they didn’t have the financials to complete the deal. Might history repeat itself
Wherever he goes, he’s going to be fun to watch.
In this writer’s opinion the best move for Nunez would be Arsenal. The Gunners are finally on the right path under Mikel Arteta and they have an extremely exciting young attacking core. They just need a goalscorer. Picturing Nunez alongside Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli is something that should have Arsenal fans licking their lips. One thing that could be really fun to watch is watching Nunez inter-change positions with Martinelli on the left.