Darwin Nunez: The Benfica striker Liverpool and Manchester United want

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From the club that brought you Ederson, Jan Oblak, Bernardo Silva, Joao Felix, Joao Cancelo and Ruben Dias among others, please welcome your latest ready-made transfer to an elite European team, complete with rough edges smoothed, Benfica-style: introducing And Darwin Nunez.

If you’re new to the 22-year-old Uruguayan forward, The Athletic must report that you are a little way behind the scouting departments of a few pretty big clubs. Our David Ornstein reported in April that the scrum of elite sides gathering to register an interest has been streamlined slightly, with Manchester United, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain among the contenders to sign him.

West Ham United failed with a bid in January. Newcastle United tried too. His former agent (more on that shortly) suggested that Atletico Madrid were the club who had shown the most interest.

Today The Athletic’s James Pearce has reported that Liverpool are interested in signing the player with Sadio Mane wanting to leave the club this summer.

Benfica’s asking price of € 100 million (£ 85.2 million) is a potential stumbling block. Liverpool’s current transfer record is the. 75 million they paid Southampton for Virgil van Dijk in January 2018, but they believe Nunez would be the perfect fit in terms of his style and his ability to play out wide and through the middle.

Whoever wants to pluck Nunez off the Benfica production line will have to pay a hefty fee. And, as ever, that will represent a very tidy profit and will reward a not insignificant risk when the Lisbon club plucked him from the Spanish second division 19 months ago.

The expectation is very much that Nunez will move on somewhere this summer, and he even took the slightly unusual step of announcing on Twitter that he will be changing agents, moving away from his Uruguayan representative Edgardo Lasalvia, and looks to be heading for the extensive Jorge Mendes stable instead.

Things could get a little complicated, though: Nunez’s deal with Lasalvia expires this month, meaning there could be some crossover, and Lasalvia is unsurprisingly not keen to give up any windfall from such a lucrative move. Nunez also clarified that he and his family had not been threatened, which was in response to a report in the Portuguese newspaper Record that suggested he had to hire extra security when he was on international duty in March.

This might not be the most straightforward transfer in the world, but will it be worthwhile for whoever cuts through all the treacle?

The basic facts suggest: yes.

Nunez scored 34 goals in all competitions for Benfica last season and finished six goals clear at the top of the Liga NOS goals chart. And all this in a below-par Benfica side: they have done well in Europe but finished off the pace in Portugal, 17 points behind leaders Porto and 11 adrift of city rivals Sporting.

He’s scored big goals too: his header sent Benfica through to the Champions League quarter-finals at the expense of Ajax, and he’s netted against Barcelona, ​​Bayern Munich… and Liverpool.

He also comes with impeccable references. “He was Benfica’s most expensive purchase, and when there is no pandemic, he will be the most expensive sale,” said Jorge Jesus, the Benfica head coach who signed him, last season. “He will be a world-class player.”

A national-team colleague was on the case pretty early, too. “I have 15 years of international experience,” said fellow striker Luis Suarez, explaining that he urged Barcelona to sign Nunez during his time at the Nou Camp. “I know a thing or two about forwards. And I told them, ‘Pay attention to this one, he’s very good’. “

Nunez came through back home at Penarol, in the capital city of Montevideo, but his early career was disrupted a little by knee injuries. He did not actually make too many first-team appearances before ambitious Spanish second-tier side Almeria signed him in the summer of 2019, shortly after he turned 20.

He only spent a season there, scoring a respectable if not spectacular 16 goals in 30 games as Almeria finished fourth, then lost in the semi-finals of the promotion play-offs. But Benfica saw enough to pay a club-record € 24 million for him. “They were paying for the potential,” says David Badia, who was Almeria’s assistant manager while Nunez was there. “And also how much he improved in such a short time.”

That rapid improvement has been a characteristic of his young career so far, and is one of the reasons so many clubs are keen to move for him now. His pandemic-disrupted debut season in Portugal was fairly modest, 14 goals in 44 appearances across all competitions, and it’s only in this one that he has burst into the wider consciousness, with those goals and his general performances.

Nunez has most frequently played as a central forward for Benfica this season, as this graphic illustrates…

… But he’s not really a center-forward, despite looking like one. He’s 6ft 2in tall, broad-chested and rapid, his size making his pace all the more terrifying for defenders who might consider getting in his way. In fact, combine that with his long hair and stick him in the light blue shirt of Uruguay and, at first glance, you might think you’re looking at another Edinson Cavani.

But he’s a very different player to his compatriot and fellow front man. For a start, despite most frequently playing more centrally, Nunez also plays quite a bit to the left when Benfica set up in a 3-4-3 / 3-4-2-1 formation, behind one of Roman Yaremchuk or Haris Seferovic.

And even when he is nominally starting in the middle, he often does much of his good work from the left, operating in what you might call the “Thierry Henry channel” – not a winger, not quite even a wide forward, but drifting in and out of those bits of the pitch where defenders aren’t.

The sense is that Nunez often does his best work on the counter-attack, in games where Benfica are obliged to sit back – usually in Europe – and use his pace and strength on the break, and his directness to forge goalscoring opportunities on his own .

Take this goal against Barcelona in the Champions League group stage in September.

Julian Weigl picks up the ball in Benfica’s half and Nunez immediately sprints down the left…

… Weigl finds him with a pass down the line, which takes Nunez towards the corner, with Barcelona defender Eric Garcia close at hand. Danger for the Catalans looks minimal at this point.

But Nunez cuts infield at pace, flummoxing Garcia with a couple of stepovers…

… Before firing a low shot into the bottom corner, past Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

It isn’t quite creating something from nothing and it probably should have been defended better, but it’s a counter-attack that could easily have petered out were it not for Nunez’s dynamism and directness.

It would be tempting for someone watching Nunez for the first time to think of him as a target man, but observers in Portugal also suggest he’s at his best when playing alongside someone filling that role, rather than doing it himself. He can and has played as a No 9 but, hypothetically, should Chelsea sign him, that would not necessarily mean he’s a replacement for Romelu Lukaku. He could just as easily play with the Belgian.

Speak to those who have worked with Nunez and they say he’s a relatively quiet but friendly character, accommodating to selfie-seekers who stop him on the street, and not excessively concerned with the trappings of football.

“We were in a shop,” remembers Almeria colleague Badia. “He was buying a phone, but it was just a normal one, not the top, most expensive one he could find. I asked why he wasn’t buying a better phone. He said, ‘This is enough – I can call people with this’. “

People also speak of a player incredibly focused on his game and improving in any way he can.

Upon joining Almeria, for example, he hired his own nutritionist and physical conditioning coach in addition to the support provided by the club. This resulted in performance numbers described as “stratospheric”. Remember, he was only just out of his teens when he moved to southern Spain.

“Everyone was expecting a lot from him,” says Badia. “He was very hard-working. He developed himself brilliantly in terms of tactical knowhow, physical condition, movement. ”

The latter quality is emphasized: “He improved the tempo of losing his marker: where he should run, what movements he should make.”

That improvement is illustrated by several goals he’s scored this season, one example being an ostensibly unremarkable strike in the league against Santa Clara in February.

Winger Rafa Silva collects the ball to the right of the penalty area, with Nunez close to his marker at the far post…

… Roman Yaremchuk takes over possession just inside the box, and while the defender on him moves towards the danger, Nunez hangs back, recognizing that space is being created and that he should position himself in the best spot to take advantage…

… Meaning that when the cross is clipped over from the byline, he’s got plenty of room to finish.

It’s a relatively simple movement, but one that shows Nunez’s game is evolving. Add that to his natural gifts, and you can see why people are so excited. “The combination of his size and his speed – he’s amazing,” says Badia. “He can arrive half a second before the defender. Half a second is so important. ”

There is an inevitable concern with a player with this sort of expected fee who has only really put in notable performances for one season, and in a domestic league that is a step or two below the top flights in, say, England, Spain and Italy .

Of course, it is difficult to predict how Nunez might perform in the Premier League, but the following smarterscout pizza chart suggests at least some of his statistics compare favorably with other forwards already playing in England.

Smarterscout gives players ratings from zero to 99 for various qualities, and in this case, they are adjusted to how Nunez might perform compared to other Premier League strikers.

As you can see, he rates very highly in terms of expected goals from shot creation (74 out of 99) and ball progression (91out of 99), which shows how much his actions contribute to his chances chances on goal. He is also quick to get a shot away with the touches he has (shot volume: 88 out of 99).

He’s not so active in the air (aerial duels quantity: 11 out of 99), and smarterscout does suggest that, while he does dribble a lot, he’s not great at retaining the ball: his rating here is just 11 out of 99, while his pass completion is 54 per cent – that’s in the bottom one per cent of strikers across Europe according to data from StatsBomb.

Beyond the statistics are the intangibles, not least his clear capacity for improvement, but also Benfica’s eye for talent.

They bring in players not only because they think they will suit their team, but because they think they will suit others too – others with deeper pockets than they do and lofty ambitions.

“We depend on player trading,” chief executive Domingos Soares de Oliveira told The Athletic‘s James Horncastle recently. “It’s a kind of pipeline, where we have talented players – some coming through the academy, and others that we bought at an earlier stage. We try to produce an additional revenue stream with these guys to support the investments we have to do with others. ”

Nunez looks to be the next one on the move, possibly to a club near you.

“He’s a player who knows what he is,” says Badia. “He knows where he came from. He does not have butterflies in his head. He likes to be at the center – I do not want to say selfish, but he’s a striker. He likes to score goals. ”

(Main graphic – photos: Getty Images / design: Sam Richardson)


(This piece was originally published in April and was updated on June 8.)

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