The Uruguayan stepped off the bench to score in the Community Shield, but should he now start in the Reds’ Premier League opener?
One game, one goal, one trophy. One new hero, topless and top-knotted, for Liverpool supporters to worship.
As debuts go, Darwin Nunez could hardly have asked for a better one. When you arrive at a new club in a new league, and for a big transfer fee, the first thing you want to do is start well. The Uruguayan has certainly done that.
“Big for him, and big for us,” was the verdict of Virgil van Dijk after Nunez had emerged from the bench to sink Manchester City in the FA Community Shield at the King Power Stadium on Saturday.
In a little over half an hour in Leicester, the £64-million ($76m) man showed exactly why Liverpool were so keen to sign him from Benfica, why Van Dijk believes him to be the perfect “modern-day striker”, and why Jurgen Klopp is convinced the 23-year-old will make a side which chased the quadruple last season even stronger.
From the moment he entered the pitch, replacing Roberto Firmino after 58 minutes, Nunez was right in the thick of things.
While Erling Haaland, City’s own big-money striker, operated on the periphery, having fewer touches and attempting fewer passes than any other player on the pitch, Liverpool’s No.27 was involved in everything, desperate to make an impact.
He certainly did that. He finished having taken more shots (four) and received more big chances (three) than any Liverpool player, and having had five touches in the opposition penalty area, only one fewer than Haaland managed in 90 minutes.
He won his side a penalty, his header handled by Ruben Dias, allowing Mohamed Salah to give the Reds a decisive lead. And then, in stoppage-time, came the crowning glory, Nunez stooping to head Andy Robertson’s knock-down past Ederson from close range, and seal his side’s 3-1 win.
Connecting with his new fans
The celebrations said it all, Nunez removing his shirt in front of the delirious Liverpudlians. How he loved it, and how they loved it.
They had come to see him as much as anyone, no question about that. They chanted his name as he warmed up in the first half, and again as he was summoned from the bench in the second. After his goal, they unfurled a Uruguay flag in the stands. Not since the days of Luis Suarez have we seen that.
Suarez, too, made an instant impact on Merseyside of course, and if Nunez can follow in his countryman’s footsteps, then Reds fans are in for one hell of a ride.
For now, though, they can simply enjoy the moment. A new hero is in town at Anfield.
‘Don’t read the press!’
It is clear that some of the criticism which, ridiculously, greeted Nunez’s performances in pre-season, has been heard and felt, and not just by the man himself.
Here, for example, we heard Andy Robertson, in a live pitchside interview, mention “some of the rubbish said about him recently”, and in his post-match press conference, Jurgen Klopp again referred to the conversations around the new-boy’s form as “a joke.”
In the mixed zone, meanwhile, Virgil van Dijk offered some sound advice to his new team-mate.
“He has to not look at what all you guys say about him after a game!” the Dutchman told a gaggle of assembled reporters. “He has to just focus on himself, on the team, improve, get settled in as quickly as possible.
“The only way to do that is to learn from training, learning from the games you play, and don’t look at what others have to say about you and your performances. That, for me, is the key to success. You can get distracted by all that other stuff.”
‘The modern-day striker’
Of course this is only one game, and not even, technically at least, a competitive one either. Bigger challenges await Nunez, and Liverpool, and while there will be plenty who revel in his joy and Haaland’s misfortune, drawing conclusions at this point is as silly as it was after Nunez’s pre-season bow.
Van Dijk has faced both strikers, and so is well-placed to talk about their skills and potential. And he has no doubt that both Nunez and Haaland will shine in the Premier League.
“You see he is direct, he makes good runs in behind, he’s quick, he’s strong,” he said of Nunez. “I said it before, I think he’s a modern-day striker.
“Haaland is the same. They have similar attributes, and they are difficult to play against.
“He [Haaland] obviously has a lot of qualities that can make life difficult for defenders. He will make defenders’ lives in England horrible! He’s so direct. He has everything; he can head the ball, he’s quick.
“There is pressure on players who are coming in with a big price tag, but what can you do? You come in to perform, and the club pays a transfer fee for you. You just have to work, and in his case try to score as many goals as possible. That’s the same for Darwin in our case.”
And don’t forget Salah…
While Nunez, naturally, attracted attention and headlines, it should not be forgotten that it was another Liverpool forward who picked up the Player of the Match award.
We have become almost blase about the brilliance of Mo Salah, but here, if it were needed, was another reminder.
He was involved in all three of his side’s goals, laying on Trent Alexander-Arnold’s opener, scoring what proved to be the winner with a nerveless penalty and then clipping in the cross from which Robertson set up Nunez, and comprehensively won his battle with Joao Cancelo down Liverpool’s right flank.
With his future now sorted – he signed a new three-year contract over the summer – Salah looks ready to continue his quest for glory at Liverpool, both team and individual.
The focus may be on the likes of Nunez and Haaland, but you’d be a fool to bet against the Egyptian when it comes to the Premier League Golden Boot.
Does Nunez start at Fulham?
So, how does Klopp play it at Craven Cottage next weekend? He resisted the urge to chuck Nunez straight into his starting XI on Saturday, reasoning that Roberto Firmino’s pressing and link-play would work best against City.
It was the right call, Firmino delivering a performance of class and intelligence, which shows the Brazilian still has a big role to play in this side.
Nunez, though, will be brimming with confidence following his goal and off-the-bench impact, so will Klopp be tempted to start him at Fulham, where he is likely to get even more space and even more chances?
Whatever he chooses, he can feel relaxed. It may only be one game, but Liverpool look in more than decent shape heading into the new campaign.