Jurgen Klopp is afraid. If Darwin Nunez can scare defenders, he has the same effect on his own manager, albeit for different reasons. “I’m a bit afraid of the highs he could reach because there is so much there,” Klopp reflected. “It’s crazy.”
And if craziness appears central to the conundrum of Nunez, the agent of chaos, the fearsome forward who can become the master of misses, it was the potential that blew Klopp away when Liverpool faced Benfica in the Champions League in 2022. Now, albeit in his idiosyncratic manner, he feels closer to realising it. Certainly his manager is still captivated, still wondering where Nunez’s various talents will take him.
“The speed, the finishing skills, the desire he has… when he’s fit he is really fit so he can go and go again,” the Liverpool manager said. “You just don’t know where he will end up.” The same may be said when the Uruguayan embarks on a charge towards his goal. He managed to miss an open goal against Toulouse and spurn a sitter against West Ham. He also got an extraordinary winner at Bournemouth on Wednesday with a ferocious shot from an acute angle. He has scored in his last three games, has seven goals already this season and a goal or an assist every 83 minutes for Liverpool this season. He has become a consistent threat, albeit in an inimitably inconsistent manner.
“It’s the riddle of the life of a striker,” Klopp argued. “You have a few goals already and it makes it easier. He always will miss chances but if you miss the first five before you score it doesn’t feel great. Now he has had a good start to the season and he has scored fantastic goals, different goals, all kinds of goals. He’s in a different moment.”
More than most managers, Klopp is likelier to settle for the trade-off of a less clinical forward who has more efforts. Nunez’s physicality – he has been timed at 36.5 kph in full flight – and height, coupled with his relentlessness, give him a constant threat. He averages 4.92 shots per 90 minutes, much the most in the Premier League; he topped that particular table last season, too.
Klopp has unleashed him in his preferred role. Nunez spent some of his first season at Anfield playing off the left, charged with replicating Sadio Mane’s role. He was never designed as a like-for-like replacement for Roberto Firmino but, as Liverpool’s midfield malfunctioned, Klopp preferred to use a false nine to try and shore the system up. Now greater change has come, along with a midfield makeover.
“Darwin is a [No] 9,” Klopp said. “He can play the wing as well and it all depends on how we want to work an opponent - where the space is, where you can unleash his full potential. The thing is, last year especially when things did not go particularly well, it was super important that everything was set up perfectly and we needed a No 9 who defended the centre perfectly in a way Darwin was not able to do then; now he can.
“Now we are set up slightly different, with a different confidence level. We used the full pre-season to get used to that. In that moment when we are defensively stable then he has to play from the centre. It is to make sure we are compact but we don’t have to judge all the different options of the opponent where they could go through. We got used to Bobby [Firmino] and then Cody [Gakpo] stepped in really well, and then all of a sudden Darwin’s first thing should be to stretch the formation and be there.”
If some of Nunez’s initial issues were positional, others were verbal. Klopp can be the great communicator, but a language barrier divided him. “You see this incredible talent, massive potential, but it’s difficult to unfold it,” he recalled. “I’m obviously a manager who can help a player but I need contact for that. In an ideal world, you can speed up the process by talking a lot with the player. I was not able to do that because I don’t speak Spanish, but his English is now much better and my Spanish still isn’t.” It helps that Nunez also has another interpreter. The multilingual Alisson Becker was a go-between but he is also a goalkeeper. Enter Alexis Mac Allister, a summer signing who is passer, translator and mini-manager. “Macca is a super smart footballer so if I forget to tell him something Macca tells him anyway,” Klopp said.
Not that Mac Allister’s wisdom was called into question during Nunez’s false start to life at Anfield. Klopp paid an initial £64m, which could rise to a club record £85m. He did not try and shy away from the fee. “He came in for really big money. We all know, if you have another year and another year like that…” The fear for Klopp may have been that Nunez would be dismissed as his most expensive mistake. For now, even among the misses, he may be filling opponents with dread.