Missing out on the Premier League title by a point and losing the Champions League final to a single goal proves that Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are not missing much.
Their stunning quadruple chase ran through until late May, only to be dashed by Premier League champions Manchester City, and then in Paris amid chaotic scenes to Real Madrid.
Mohamed Salah was once again sublime; Diogo Jota provided 21 valuable goals in all competitions; Sadio Mane was electric, netting 23 of his own; Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino combined for 17 more; in attack, Klopp had an artillery at the envy of his rivals.
But as good as this Liverpool side was – and is – it felt a puzzle piece short, an orthodox No 9 that really would give Klopp the freedom he needs to win it all. And that’s what Darwin Nunez represents. Orthodox. Traditional. The type of striker Klopp has shied away from since moving on Christian Benteke in 2018.
Darwin Nunez could prove to be the missing piece for Liverpool as their orthodox No 9 figure
He looks set to form a devastating front three with Luis Diaz (left) and Mohamed Salah (right)
Klopp has gone for pace, not least because it’s the one attribute that scares defenders most, and secondly it is absolutely imperative in the 4-3-3 gegenpressing system that he has hung his hat on to this point.
Mane and Salah have long had authority on the wings, with Firmino the glue-guy that made much of the interplay with a three-man midfield stick.
And it was to be richly successful. They won a Premier League title sticking by that plan and those principles.
Evolution – and expect that word to come up a lot when more and more prose is written around Darwin Nunez – is a fact of life, though. Now feels a moment that even Klopp knows is time to target something new, rather than more of the same.
Sportsmail revealed on Wednesday how Liverpool are ready to smash their transfer record to get the Uruguayan out of Benfica, with a fee totalling £85million.
It’s a big fee for a club that has typically looked for more financially prudent deals, compared to some of their rivals.
Nunez, however, is a generational talent that Luis Suarez urged Barcelona to sign and both Diego Forlan and Edinson Cavani lobbied for Manchester United to get.
‘[Nunez is a good fit] not only for the coach himself, who is a motivator and enthusiastic but also for the style of play he pushes,’ Jose Gomes, Nunez’s coach during his time in Spain with Almeira, told Portuguese newspaper Record.
‘Klopp likes to look for spaces behind opposing defensive lines, which means that we can say that Darwin will feel like a fish in water, because speed and quick attack are characteristics that he favours.’
Nunez has a skillset that contrasts to that of Salah, Mane, Firmino, Jota, the departing Origi and the January acquisition, Luis Diaz.
Nunez is a devastating finisher and looks to cut in from the left to curl into the far corner
Jurgen Klopp has typically preferred wingers and wide attackers but Nunez looks to be special
The first thing to note is that at 6ft 2in Nunez is excellent in the air, a real threat, something Klopp’s front line has traded off in favour of speed and dribble penetration.
Take last season’s frustrating 1-1 draw at Anfield against Tottenham, a match which, had they gone on to win that game may have reshaped the title race as we knew it.
In that game, Klopp’s side produced 46 crosses – the most of any team in a single match throughout the 2021-22 season. Not one of the 46 beat Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris. That’s a problem.
Add in too that Trent Alexander-Arnold produced more crosses from right back than any player in the rest of the league. Service isn’t the issue. Having size was.
Nunez doesn’t have the muscle mass of Romelu Lukaku or, winding the clock back a touch, Didier Drogba in his heyday at Chelsea, but the Uruguayan relishes pinning himself to a centre back and going toe-to-toe in the physical battle.
You don’t think a Uruguayan striker endorsed by Suarez would shirk the physical side of the game, do you?
It is Nunez’s size, as well as his tactical versatility, that makes him incredibly appealing, not just to Liverpool.
Still only 22, he has shown an ability to be effective in a 4-4-2, a 3-4-3, a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 system.
Should Klopp elect to stick with his 4-3-3 system, expect Nunez to slot in between Salah, wide on the right, and Diaz, out on the left, with Mane almost certain to leave for Bayern Munich despite two opening bids rejected.
Nunez is an instinctive finisher that has no qualms in staying high and pinned onto the defence.
His aerial prowess would thrive at Liverpool, given the service they provide from the full-backs
It has been a rapid rise for Nunez – in 2019 he was playing for boyhood club Penarol in Uruguay
Typically strikers find themselves itching to drop deeper and deeper in a bid to stay involved but playing this system in Portugal, Nunez has shown, if anything, his tendency is to rotate across the attack, typically interchanging with the left winger.
As a right-footed finisher, there is the pattern of play whereby he often drifts wide left to both drag the centre backs apart, but also to allow him to invert, cut inside back onto his right and curl for the far corner.
Analysed purely as a finisher, with any move likely to see him frequently compared to Manchester City-bound Erling Haaland, Nunez finds himself in truly elite company.
Only Robert Lewandowski (35), Kylian Mbappé (28), Karim Benzema (27) and Ciro Immobile (27) netted more league goals last season across Europe’s top five leagues than Nunez did for Benfica.
In fact, as cited in a brilliant breakdown of his game by The Analyst, his league minutes-per-goal return of 76 minutes put him at No 1 in the same top five leagues for all strikers who got at least 1,000 minutes.
More? Take his Champions League performances, netting against Liverpool home and away no doubt left an impression on Klopp.
In that competition he took 16 shots and scored six goals. At a rate of 2.67 shots per goal, few critiques can be levelled at Nunez’s ability as a marksman finisher.
The most interesting aspect of any move for Nunez is the options he provides to play alone up front, or in a partnership.
Divock Origi is leaving this summer, the only thing close to a true No 9 at the club recently
Jurgen Klopp did not favour Christian Benteke but the Belgian still speaks highly of the boss
An analysis of his time in Spain, where he spent just one season with Almería, shows that Nunez thrived with a strike partner in a 4-4-2, finishing with 16 league goals.
Back that up with Benfica’s 2020-21 season, in which, again, he found himself joined up front in a 4-4-2.
That Benfica team was heavily dependent on the full-backs providing the width – with midfielders inverting to almost No 10s. That should prove no issue for Liverpool giving the attacking attributes of both Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
Right now Liverpool would have a front two of Mane-Salah, Salah-Diaz, Salah-Firmino, Jota-Firmino or Jota-Salah and while potent, all lack a traditional No 9 to make everything stick.
Diaz is better off the left, Salah is more deadly when allowed the space to build up a head of steam out wide, Firmino often drops deep to link play and Jota’s lack of size makes him useful at No 10 or in a wide role.
In fact, compared to Salah and Mane last season, in data shared by Red Zone on Twitter, Nunez came out on top in goals, goals per game, mins per goal, conversion rate and shot accuracy.
And so Nunez would provide that presence with which to build from, should a 4-4-2 take hold of Klopp.
It is Nunez’s appetite to drift out wide left that could see Klopp adopt a 4-2-3-1, with Diaz on the left, Salah on the right and one of Harvey Elliott or summer signing Fabio Carvalho in at No 10.
Nunez is so versatile, having been deployed in 4-3-3, 4-3-2-1, 4-4-2 and 3-4-2 tactical systems
Nunez could help unlock youngsters such as Harvey Elliott (right) with his hold-up abilities
Firmino could also play in that role, so too could Jota, but the team’s focal point would start and end with Nunez in a refreshed line-up to take the challenge to City.
A free-flowing front three, with Diaz able to move centrally and Nunez allowed to drift left would be a perilous task to keep in check and 48 goals in 85 games for Benfica proves how slippery a customer he is.
‘Klopp is still the best manager I worked with, although I didn’t play a lot,’ Christian Benteke told Belgian outlet HLN after he had left. For a player shunned, that speaks volumes about how good a fit Klopp could be for Nunez, as much as Nunez could be for Liverpool.
Orthodox No 9s are a rarity for Klopp but the man is at the top of the game and knows a gem when he sees one.
After all, Uruguay know a thing or two about producing top-tier strikers…