Darwin Nunez couldn’t have wished for a better audition in front of future boss Jurgen Klopp than score two goals against Liverpool in the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
The 22-year-old scored a goal in each game as Benfica fell to a 6-4 aggregate defeat, taking his tally to six from 10 games in the competition last season and helping convince the Premier League side to agree. what could become a club. -Record contract of £85 million for the Uruguayan international, surpassing the £75 million paid by Virgil van Dijk in 2018.
With Sadio Mane set to move on, Klopp will continue the evolution of his forward line with a player who was coveted by some of the continent’s biggest clubs despite just completing his second season in the top flight in Europe.
His compatriot Luis Suarez has been supporting the youngster since he joined Almeria of the Spanish second division three years ago, but Barcelona’s financial constraints prevented them from capitalizing on the veteran striker’s recommendation.
“I have 15 years of international experience, so I know a thing or two about strikers,” Suarez recalled. “And I told them, ‘look at this one, it’s very good, it has very interesting things.'”
Instead, it’s another one of Suarez’s former clubs that looks set to benefit from another emerging South American talent who honed his craft in Portugal, and the Reds also have signed Luis Diaz from Porto in January.
When Núñez joined Benfica in September 2020, having scored 16 times in his only season in Spain, it was for a club-record €24m (£20m), but in an initial campaign affected by Covid and injuries, he stuttered rather than flinched and recorded just six league goals, though he did contribute a division-high 10 assists.
“When it arrived it was a bit scary. I said I thought it would be the biggest flop in Benfica’s history because it cost a lot of money and what we saw at the beginning was a bit scary,” said Filipe Ingles of the podcast. Benfica FM.
“I even said that I would buy his shirt if he scored 30 goals in one season because I never thought he would be able to do something like that, but he improved a lot these two seasons.”
Ingles was happy to eat his words and shell out a ‘Darwin 9’ shirt, as the young forward repaid Benfica’s faith with 34 goals in all competitions last season, 26 of them in 28 league games.
“He has progressed a lot. Physically he has become a monster, he is very physical and fast, and another thing that has improved a lot is his confidence,” continued Inglés.
“He was the type of striker who sometimes lacked confidence to score, he was always trying to pass the ball to another player and that is something that in the first season we all saw that he had that problem. In this second season he gained much more confidence. , he started scoring goals.”
Former Benfica manager Jorge Jesus called him out when the club made the record purchase of Nunez two years ago, predicting he would soon be worth much more.
“All this decisiveness, completion and speed,” Jesus said. “It was Benfica’s most expensive purchase and when there is no pandemic, it will be the most expensive sale.”
A direct replacement for Mane?
Núñez’s impressive goalscoring return and imposing stature give him the image of a traditional nine, and of his 48 goals in 85 games for Benfica, 92% came from inside the area.
But the striker’s ferocious speed has also seen him deployed down the left for both club and country and his former boss at Almeria, José Gomes, told Portuguese daily Record the player will fit perfectly into Klopp’s system at Liverpool.
“Klopp likes to play looking for space at the back of opposing defensive lines,” he said. “Which means that we can say that Darwin will feel like a fish in water, because speed and fast attack are characteristics that favor him.”
With Mane set to go, Takumi Minamino for sale and Divock Origi already departing, Nunez will replenish Klopp’s attacking options and it is the Senegal striker’s loss of performance that will need to be addressed most urgently.
Nunez contributed a combined 36 goals and assists in the top flight and Champions League last season to Mane’s 23, and in nine fewer games, while scoring on average every 81 minutes and proving more clinical than the outgoing 30-year-old. years with a shot conversion. rate from 31.4% to 17.6%.
As expected, the Uruguayan had more touches in the opponent’s area every 90 minutes -8.4 to Mane’s 6.7- and also completed more dribbles (1.8 to 1.6), although Mane created more chances, with 1.5 per game to 1.2 for Núñez.
“I don’t know if he feels ready to come and sweep the Premier League,” added Ingles.
“He’s a bit shy and I don’t know if he speaks English or has that confidence, he can do the same thing, pass instead of shoot, especially when he looks to the side and he has Mohamed Salah or Roberto Firmino.
“But if the club gives him confidence and time to develop, he has the potential to be a great striker in the Premier League.”
From Peñarol to the Premier League
It has been a rapid rise for Nunez and he finds himself leading a life that would have been completely unrecognizable to the boy who saw his older brother Junior as his hero.
“Junior was the person who taught Darwin how to play football and was his motivation to play in an academy when he was young,” Uruguayan journalist Taimur Yamani told BBC Sport.
“He comes from a very poor family where they regularly lacked food, his mother sold bottles of milk and his father was a bricklayer. His parents made many sacrifices just to feed the family.”
Former Uruguayan international José Perdomo was the scout who discovered Núñez and, having brought Junior to Peñarol a couple of years earlier, eventually convinced the boys’ mother to let the younger brother leave Artigas for the capital Montevideo.
“After impressing in La Luz and San Miguel, in 2013 Perdomo, legend and talent scout from Peñarol, went to their house and told them that he wanted Darwin to move with them to Montevideo. So at the age of 14 he left his family in Artigas to take the big step, “explained Yamani.
“He tore his anterior cruciate ligament at just 17 years old and struggled so much that he almost gave up football while trying to rehabilitate his knee. At that time, his brother Junior had to give up football to help his parents get money to eat.
“When Darwin saw the sacrifices his brother and his family were making, he decided to stay and make it to the first team so he could provide his family with the financial help they needed.”
Nunez had more setbacks to overcome, taking more than a year after his debut to score his first senior goal in October 2018 following further knee surgery, before earning his move to Europe.
“When he was in top form nothing stopped him and he was one of the best players for Uruguay in 2019,” added Yamani. “When Núñez signed for Almería he became known in Uruguay as the new Edinson Cavani”.
And Perdomo believes there is endless potential for the boy he first recruited just a decade ago.
“What really excites me about Darwin is that I think it still has a lot to evolve, it has no ceiling.” he told BBC Sport in November. “He is the future number nine of Uruguay.”