Darwin Núñez swaps chaos for control but needs a statement showing

The first touch is a little heavy. Still, he retains possession and drives into the right channel with a billowing burst of pace. Gets tackled by Nathan Aké. Writhes around theatrically on the turf for a while, grimacing and holding his ankle. Has a little argument with the referee. Chases down a long ball as the next phase of play resets. Almost collides head-on with a teammate. Diverts his run into the penalty area. Scores an awkward header from four yards. Tears towards the corner in celebration. Rips off his shirt. Gets booked.

Darwin Núñez’s first taste of English football came against Manchester City in the 2022 Community Shield. In retrospect this late passage of play – one minute of pure, liquid Darwin – was the moment the template was set. The hurricane. The cult hero. The agent of chaos. Andy Carroll with a slightly bigger price tag and a similar command of English. From the moment Núñez arrived on these shores, accompanied by a slew of unflattering social media clips and lazy comparisons with Erling Haaland, he would discover that his role as a kind of pantomime cow had largely been pre-assigned to him.

Related: Pep Guardiola has sacrificed control and let Jérémy Doku bring the chaos

Jürgen Klopp always said that Núñez was a long-term project rather than a short-term fix, a forward with a high ceiling and a much more rounded game than many believed he was capable of. But as the misses and the pratfalls began to pile up during an indifferent first season in the Premier League nobody was prepared to listen. Even now, as Núñez has begun to hit his stride in an evolving Liverpool team, those first impressions have proven stubbornly persistent.

But not everyone sees Núñez as a figure of fun. Back in his home country of Uruguay, Núñez is a far more aspirational figure: a man who rose out of poverty and forged himself into one of the world’s best forwards through a relentless thirst for improvement. There you are far more likely to hear paeans to his phenomenal work rate, his clinical touch in front of goal and, most of all, his sheer importance to a nation shrugging off the baggage of the past and building an exciting young team under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa.

One of Bielsa’s first big decisions on taking over in May was to discard Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani and make Núñez his pet project, the focal point of his attack, with all that entails in a Bielsa team. In the short term, it is a relationship that has generated instant rewards. With five goals in his past four games, Núñez is the top scorer in South American World Cup qualifying, helping Uruguay to a first win over Brazil in 22 years and a first win in Argentina since 1937. In the longer term, it is Liverpool who may just reap the benefits.

It all began with a Zoom call over the summer. Núñez was injured for Uruguay’s two internationals in June but the new coach still had some homework for him. Bielsa had spent months diligently studying footage of Núñez for club and country and had noted his tendency to attack the space between the opposition centre-backs. “He corrected some things,” Núñez says later. “For example, there’s a play where all of the opposition team are back. He [Bielsa] tells me: ‘Don’t run in front of the second centre-back, run in behind.’ So the centre-back loses my position.”

Of course, there was more than this. In Bielsa’s vision the lone striker has an all-round role that goes well beyond goals. The No 9 has the responsibility of leading and organising the press, using body shape and curved runs to direct the ball towards more favourable areas. Neither Cavani nor Suárez, both 36, has the engine to fulfil this role any longer. By varying and timing their movement, the 24-year-old is also better equipped to create space and provide chances for teammates.

Liverpool’s Darwin Núñez scores spectacularly against Brentford, only for his effort to be disallowed for offside
Liverpool’s Darwin Núñez scores spectacularly against Brentford, only for his effort to be disallowed for offside. Photograph: Molly Darlington/Reuters

Watch Núñez for Liverpool this season and you can see some of these changes in action. Against Newcastle in August, his two late goals came from peeling runs into the right channel, outside the centre-backs. Counterattacking against Nottingham Forest in October, you see Núñez instinctively charging down the centre before remembering to taper his run outside, laying on a goal for Diogo Jota. Creatively this is shaping up to be the most productive season of Núñez’s career, with one assist every 145 minutes in all competitions.

None of which is to understate the role that Klopp and Liverpool have played in Núñez’s development. In fact, one way of interpreting Núñez’s recent improvement is as a testament to how a player can profit from different and complementary influences. Bielsa always made clear his admiration of Klopp when he was at Leeds, paying tribute to the attractiveness of their game and the enthusiasm that Klopp transmits to his players.

But when asked to expand on the differences between Klopp and Pep Guardiola, Bielsa gave an interesting answer. “I have the feeling that Guardiola’s intellectual construction is not accessible, at least for me,” he says. “Klopp is a coach with his own stamp, but he is more accessible to be decoded. Building resources to drive creative play is what sets Guardiola apart.” In short: there is a complexity to Guardiola’s teams that no other coach – not even the great Klopp – can quite match. So in the hands of a teacher like Bielsa, there is always scope for new layers and levels to be unlocked.

Related: Liverpool can challenge for title again, says Trent Alexander-Arnold

There is a school of thought that with Haaland, Rodri and Ederson shrugging off injuries and a gruelling international break in the legs, this is not the worst time for Liverpool to be going to the Etihad. The 4-4 draw against Chelsea a fortnight ago demonstrated how City can occasionally be vulnerable to teams who run directly at them, force them to defend one-on-one, pull them around with clever movement.

But for Liverpool, a club not so much contending for the title as trying to convince themselves they are contending for the title, the real battle is psychological. City destroyed them 4-1 in the corresponding fixture last season, and for all Liverpool’s improvement what has been missing is a statement performance against serious opposition. There have been draws at Chelsea and Brighton, a freaky defeat at Spurs and a streaky win at Newcastle. Meanwhile, it has been eight years since they last won at City in the Premier League.

In many ways Núñez is a microcosm of all this: a player who has overcome growing pains and upheaval, missed games and missed chances, rotation and ridicule, and who for all his progress still needs to test himself against the standard he one day aspires to reach. For weeks, Liverpool have looked as if they might be the finished article without ever quite conclusively proving it. The time for excuses, you feel, is now over.