EPL TALK: Liverpool’s Nunez won’t be excused forever for slow start

Liverpool's Darwin Nunez during their Champions League clash against Rangers at Anfield.
Liverpool's Darwin Nunez during their Champions League clash against Rangers at Anfield. (PHOTO: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

EVEN Google appears to be taunting Darwin Nunez now. Just type the Liverpool striker’s surname into the search engine and watch the most popular options appear beneath the bar. That name is always among them. The name. The only name up for discussion, admiration or exasperation at the moment, depending on your point of view.


It’s always Haaland.

He haunts Nunez within the Google search algorithms. There’s “Nunez vs Haaland stats” and “Nunez vs Haaland” and “Nunez Haaland comparison”, as the world does just that online. Compares. Judges. Condemns.

Nunez is increasingly at risk of being written off for what he isn’t, rather than what he is, the English Premier League’s latest version of Andy Roddick; a fine, accomplished athlete who was unfairly maligned for turning up in the era of Roger Federer.

Erling Haaland has not so much moved the goalposts as obliterated them, cutting them in two with one of his startling flying kicks; half-parang, half-panache and a whole lotta lunge.

Conventional yardsticks for Haaland – and his peers – are being revised on a bi-weekly basis: i.e. every time the Norwegian scores, which is at least twice a game, twice a week. He’s doing a disservice to the strikers union and its greatest supporters.

Jurgen Klopp’s spirited defence of Nunez is typically empathetic and sincere, insisting that his Uruguayan import will come good, definitely, almost certainly, maybe. Perhaps.

He sounds like a starving villager, convinced that his young son will return with a feast, any day now, as a Nordic warrior swaggers off with a couple of hogs slung over each shoulder.

Strikers will be critiqued in different timeframes – before and after Haaland. Before Haaland, Nunez’s six-game goal drought was manageable, a mild headache, easily overcome. Now it’s the migraine that won’t go away, a nagging, persistent ache as the thought lingers. How long does it take for an elite striker to settle in the EPL?

Klopp has granted more time for Nunez. Pep Guardiola granted Haaland a miserly 45 minutes against FC Copenhagen in the Champions League and the pony-tailed extra from Game of Thrones still scored twice. Haaland has scored 19 times in 12 appearances. Nunez hasn’t scored since the opening day of the season.

Obviously, there’s an apples-and-oranges element to such a superficial comparison. A three-game suspension, Queen Elizabeth’s death and fixture cancellations have restricted Nunez to just three starts for Liverpool. And the industrious striker did test Rangers keeper Allan McGregor on three occasion in the Champions League.

That’s the 40-year-old journeyman McGregor, who denied Nunez three times, as opposed to the feline-like David de Gea, who failed to stop Haaland’s hat-trick in the Manchester derby. Is that still a case of apples and oranges or a cheap shot that fails to address the gulf in quality between Liverpool and Manchester City?

Running out of time to adapt

So let’s deal with that. Haaland enjoys impeccable service from Phil Foden, Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva, who have conspired to upgrade the previous operating system to something faster and blunter. Nunez has joined a team in transition.

But he also has Mo Salah, which could leave the 23-year-old sounding like a whiny Anakin Skywalker moaning about only being guided by Obi-Wan Kenobi, the best in the sorcery business, should he belabour the point about his difficult start.

This season, Salah has sacrificed himself, to a degree, overcompensating for the loss of Sadio Mane by scoring less, but creating more. The Egyptian has conjured 25 EPL chances already – second only to de Bruyne’s 27 – and carved out an exquisite opportunity for Nunez against Rangers. Nunez didn’t take it.

Indeed, Liverpool’s line-up against Rangers hinted at Klopp's necessary tinkering to address the defensive hiccups of late. A tired 4-3-3 gave way to a sturdier, feistier 4-2-3-1, with Thiago Alcantara directing traffic so effortlessly all that was missing was a pair of white gloves and a whistle.

Nunez brought physicality, but less finesse. Roberto Firmino’s understated authority and his subtle, intelligent reading of the space around him were notable for their absence. Nunez was busy for 80 minutes, but busy like a worker bee. Liverpool still lacked a regal bearing.

It’s those comparisons that must concern Klopp. No one compares favourably to Haaland, but Nunez isn’t yet offering a reliable alternative to the ageing Firmino either, let alone Mane. Or Luis Diaz. Or Diogo Jota. Those two primarily speak Spanish and Portuguese, like Nunez, but hurdled the language barriers almost immediately.

Darwin Nunez (left) has been slow to adapt to the English Premier League, unlike his Liverpool teammate Luis Diaz.
Darwin Nunez (left) has been slow to adapt to the English Premier League, unlike his Liverpool teammate Luis Diaz. (PHOTO: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

And there is another, potentially damning example waiting for the Reds at the Emirates on Sunday. Unlike the otherworldly Haaland, Gabriel Jesus feels all too real in his human struggle, overcoming rejection to take a shot at redemption in less than three months.

Jesus had EPL experience and trophy success over Nunez when they both joined their new clubs in the summer, but the 25-year-old Brazilian arguably came with more question marks than the Uruguayan. Nunez had the momentum of being a highly coveted signing, moving from 26 league goals in 28 games for Benfica for the bright lights and big city of Liverpool, a clear and natural progression for a rising talent.

Jesus was good, but not good enough for Guardiola. The Manchester City manager loved him like a stepson. He was willing to let him go. Jesus was expendable.

Arsenal’s new man responded with five goals and three assists, revelling in the faith of a new manager. Mikel Arteta has given his striker a licence to run riot. In an awkward contrast, Klopp gives Nunez a runout against beatable opposition in the Champions League, hardly a ringing endorsement.

The Reds are already 11 points behind the Gunners and a Norwegian blond bomber isn’t required to measure the gap between expectation and delivery. Whatever the distance, Nunez is falling short; short of Haaland, short of Jesus, short of Diaz, Jota and Firmino.

The likeable striker knows that. He appears committed to overcoming his sluggish start. Indeed his cherubic face and glassy eyes make him an endearing character, like a kid with a wobbly lip, ready to burst into tears because he hasn’t made the school team again.

But Liverpool’s patience must be finite. A defeat at the Emirates could leave them in the bottom half of the table, an unthinkable scenario three months ago.

Nunez remains the eager-to-please runt of a jittery litter, but he’s got to make up the ground soon or he will get left behind.

Nunez remains the eager-to-please runt of a jittery litter, but he’s got to make up the ground soon or he will get left behind.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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