Darwin Núñez can thank the Liverpool press for his recent upturn in form.
The high press and the gegenpress to be more specific, as the Uruguayan endeavours to master the moves to fit Jürgen Klopp’s choreography.
When Klopp referenced Núñez’s ‘massive steps’ in the midst of the current seven-game winning streak, the manager’s focus was not just on an improved strike rather of a Premier League goal every 74 minutes compared with every 189 a year ago.
Núñez’s developing defensive output is equally if not more critical. In eight games across all competitions the 24-year-old has been responsible for 14 recovery challenges. That amounts to one every 24 minutes, whereas last season it was one every 37 minutes. For comparison, Cody Gakpo – a more natural ‘false 9’ – completes a recovery every 19 minutes this season.
Núñez is also averaging over three times more tackles per 90 minutes than in 2022-23 and winning more ground duels.
He is not quite matching Roberto Firmino’s level yet – it is not Klopp’s intention for Núñez to become a centre-forward matching the Brazilian’s exact profile – but the process of being a multifaceted No 9 is gathering pace.
The upward trajectory is winning more admirers, none more reassuring than the Kop legend Ian Rush, who mastered the art of ‘defending from the front’ while maintaining an extraordinary goal rate.
“We all know what Núñez can do with the ball. It has always been about what he can do without it, and how quickly he can learn,” says Rush.
“He has always worked hard but the key to pressing is where you put in the work. Pressing is all about anticipation. It is all about that split second and knowing who and where you are going to close down the defender.”
Núñez and Rush have only exchanged greetings as the club legend and ambassador has carried out Anfield duties.
Should they share more quality time, Núñez will be reassured it is nothing new for a young Kop striker to adapt to the weight of his No 9 shirt.
Rush ended a glittering Kop career with 346 goals but has often remarked about his difficult transition. The Welshman famously went seven games before his first goal and wrongly thought he was about to be sold by the then European champions before his fortunes spectacularly transformed in his second year at the club.
A more selfish streak in the penalty box complemented being one the hardest working strikers of all time.
“When I joined Liverpool it was Steve Heighway who taught me the importance of my position without the ball – of always being aware of what was around me so I was in the right space to close down the keeper, full-back or centre-half,” says Rush.
“With experience you could take a position almost forcing the keeper or defender to pass it where you wanted them to and then react. Seven times out of 10 they would be in trouble.
“What is also important is using your energy in the right way. You don’t want to waste it just chasing defenders or the ball. It is knowing the right times.”
There were mitigating circumstances for Núñez’s difficulties last season. Without a midfield possessing the physicality and energy to compress the play in the opponent’s half, Núñez looked isolated and unsure, more reactive than proactive. His best work relied on individual moments of inspiration. That explained the descriptions of him as being ‘erratic’ or an agent of chaos. He was freestyling in what had previously been a synchronised structure and became a luxury Klopp could not afford until the foundations were stronger. Klopp said as much on several occasions.
There has been a marked difference already. Núñez’s work ethic in training has risen since pre-season. The higher quality and dynamism around him – especially with the advancing midfielders more regularly and efficiently triggering Liverpool’s high press – is another crucial factor.
Descriptions of Núñez as an untamed wild card are starting to look outdated. Whereas last season a failure to score might mean a minimal contribution, that is no longer true.
Klopp re-emphasising his defensive contribution after last weekend’s win over West Ham is part of the ongoing strategy to ensure Núñez’s evolution continues.
“I always said Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan were like psychologists,” says Rush.
“They knew how to get the best of individuals. I see a lot of that in Klopp with Núñez, which is why he is the perfect manager for him. With Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mané there was a natural role for each and they all knew how to react. It is a bit different now with so many options.
“With Núñez’s pace you can play into space. I had the players behind me who could deliver. Now it looks like Núñez has that, too. Put it in that space and he will get there because he is so quick.
“Last season he was already showing he had an incredible work rate. He has the speed and the ability to score goals. It has always been the case that once he learns more about his position off the ball he will be an even better player. He has everything he needs to be one of the best at closing down defenders. As he gets more experience the more it will become a habit to him. The football brain can develop at a different time for different players – but it shows most in what a player does off the ball.”
If Núñez scores a third of Rush’s total in a Liverpool shirt he will have repaid the £85 million. But as Klopp often said about Firmino, there is more to being a great Liverpool No 9 than goals.