If you think the pressure of a transfer to one of the world’s elite clubs – at an eventual cost potentially reaching the €100m mark – might weigh on Darwin Núñez, then you have a lot to learn about Liverpool’s new centre-forward. The Uruguayan was always ready for this. His whole – and relatively brief, to date – career in Europe has been an unequivocal line of pressure and expectation, from when the newly flush Spanish second-tier side Almería signed him for a fee north of €5.5m shortly after his 20th birthday, in 2019.
That initial leap over from his first professional club Peñarol was, by Núñez’s own admission, prompted by his ambition to provide for his family, having always said he would buy his mother a substantial house after getting his first big deal. “When I was transferred to Almería that’s what I did – I bought six hectares of land and gave it to her,” he said in an interview with Uefa Champions League Weekly in February.
Ever since his rate of progress – and ability to overcome setbacks – has meant none of his stop-offs have really offered the possibility of being much more than transient. His arrival at Anfield, taking him to the very top of the game even before he turns 23 at the end of the month, gives him the opportunity to begin to sink his teeth fully into a career in the elite and begin to satisfy an apparently insatiable appetite.
Núñez is likely to take it in his stride. On arrival at Almería he embraced being the spearhead of the well-funded, high-profile project of Turki al-Sheikh, scoring 16 times despite working under four head coaches in a chaotic environment. When Benfica swept him away just over a year after his arrival they did so ahead of a cluster of competition, with clubs from the Premier League and France forcing the Portuguese club to spend a national record €24m to secure him. Whether the (apparently easily attainable) bonuses in the Liverpool deal are triggered or not, Núñez will be the second-most lucrative sale in Benfica history, ahead of Rúben Dias’s transfer to Manchester City and behind only João Félix’s 2019 sale to Atlético Madrid for € 120m. By now, he is more than used to the weight.
“With me Darwin only would have gone for €150m,” the club’s former president Luís Filipe Vieira claimed in an interview with Portuguese daily A Bola this week, referring to the release clause in the striker’s contract. Given the bombastic tone of his rhetoric in the piece it might have seemed like an idle boast, but we had been here before. Jorge Jesus said he expected Núñez’s eventual sale price to eclipse that of João Félix after his first goals for the club in 2020, a Europa League hat-trick against Lech Poznan, and his former Almería coach José Gomes concurred this year.
If coaches tend to err towards caution with young players, Núñez’s talent has been so impossible to hide that he has rarely been the subject of such treatment. His playing style, rampaging around central defenders like a bull and dragging them into wide channels, has always suggested broad shoulders, as has his resistance to difficulties. His first Benfica season was no cakewalk, featuring only six Liga goals, a debilitating knee complaint and considerable fan frustration. Núñez powered through to contribute 10 assists, before last season’s breakthrough: 26 in 24 Liga starts in a still underachieving Benfica side, as well as six in six Champions League starts, encompassing a one-man demolition of Barcelona and an equalizer at Anfield.
In those tough times Jesus rarely spared him public criticism, despite being “just a kid”, and their relationship often verged on testy. “Every day he shows me new things, [and] points out to me things I lack in certain situations,” Núñez acknowledged last year. Gomes publicly said: “He has to prepare himself better in the moment before he receives the ball, especially when he’s in the central corridor [of the pitch].” The potential is so high that a coach’s need to perfect is irresistible.
If there’s a note of caution, it’s that Núñez’s high-impact style could end up taking his toll on him in the Premier League. Like another former idol of the Kop, Fernando Torres, Núñez plays with everything he has, spiritually and physically. Sometimes, you wonder if it’s too much. “I can’t imagine what state I’ll be in within five or six years if I continue to play here,” Torres said in 2010, and Núñez is not the kind of character to deal in half-measures. Jurgen Klopp will need to manage him carefully.
Yet if his career so far is anything to go by, Núñez is unlikely to ponder that too much. He is not one to stand on ceremony which, as his fellow Liga alumnus Luis Díaz has shown, is the best way to fit in with Klopp’s exhilarating team.