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Darwin Nez is in the background and seems out of place at Liverpool

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

It would, of course, not be the last time Klopp got annoyed that afternoon and in this case he was perhaps right to be, given that whatever Thiago said to Núñez had no positive effect. The Uruguay forward entered the pitch and ran around with little poise or purpose, and was largely wonky and wasteful in possession. The erratic, ineffective nature of Núñez’s cameo was best summed up by his failed attempt to stop Richarlison from scoring Spurs’s third goal, a flying right-foot challenge that ended up closer to the Brazilian’s head than it did the ball, and all in all it was another display that added to the sense the 23-year-old is increasingly out of place at Anfield.

What’s for sure is this has been a trying season for Núñez after his £64m move from Benfica in June. The numbers are decent – 15 goals and four assists in 40 appearances – but he has not got close to living up to the hype that greeted his arrival and went up a notch or two after he scored on his debut, a late glancing header to seal Liverpool’s 3-1 victory over Manchester City in July’s Community Shield. It was some impact but, two games later, Núñez was sent off for head-butting Joachim Andersen in a 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace and has never truly recovered. As the campaign draws to a conclusion, he finds himself on the periphery.

Klopp wondering what Thiago was saying to Nunez . pic.twitter.com/iqDhp3RoZ5

Núñez has started only one of Liverpool’s past seven games, coming on as a substitute in the other six and, as at the weekend, catching the eye largely for the wrong reasons. The somewhat chaotic rawness that has characterised his time on Merseyside has been there for all to see and what feels apparent as spring takes shape is that Klopp has decided who his principal forwards are and the most expensive is not one of them. Mohamed Salah, Cody Gakpo and Diojo Jota have consistently been selected as Liverpool’s front three with Luiz Díaz firmly in the mix after recovering from injury. The Colombian scored against Spurs in his first start since October, displaying the intensity, intelligence, speed and aggression that made him an immediately ideal fit for Liverpool upon his arrival from Porto last January.

And therein lies the issue for Núñez – he doesn’t appear to fit. Certainly not as a central striker, which he was signed to be and for all the tactical adjustments Klopp has made this season to improve Liverpool’s fortunes, the latest being an approach based on Trent Alexander-Arnold adopting a hybrid right-back/midfield role, remains a position for which the incumbent not only needs to know how to press but also lead it. Roberto Firmino was the master and Núñez is some way short of being the apprentice.

Klopp has intimated as much with recent comments, making clear that “the ticket into this team must be counter-pressing” and “if you do it you play [and] have a good chance to start again”. Given Núñez has not been starting you don’t have to be Ted Hastings to figure out he is falling short of what his manager wants, with Klopp making his feelings on the matter particularly clear with his comments regarding Núñez’s adaptation to life in the UK. “His English is still not great, if not existing at all,” he said. “He has to learn English, that’s how it is. In training sessions we cannot have four languages translated.” Hence the role of Thiago as part teammate-part communicator, albeit occasionally at less-than-suitable moments.

In contrast, Gakpo has increasingly appeared the ideal successor to Firmino since his arrival from PSV Eindhoven in December. He is adept at dropping deep to collect, retain and progress possession, while his link-up play and, crucially, ability to press are also impressive, with various metrics showing him outperforming Núñez in those areas. A return of six goals and two assists in 21 appearances also helps the Dutchman’s cause in regards to holding down the false No 9 spot, which he may well do again for Wednesday evening’s visit of Fulham.

None of this is to say Núñez is a write-off, a flop, a ‘shit Andy Carroll’. He has impressed this season, mainly from the left of Liverpool’s frontline, stepping in for Díaz and using his searing pace, power, work rate and instinctive finishing, alongside that chaotic rawness, to disrupt defences. To some extent he was unlucky with the timing of the World Cup given the momentum he had before the tournament. That he was performing well in a team struggling so badly was especially noteworthy.

All the attributes that made Klopp “fall in love” with Núñez after seeing him perform for Benfica against Liverpool in the Champions League 13 months ago are there and it is a case of refining them and smoothing out those rough edges in order to suit a particular style and system, something Núñez is young and seemingly hungry enough to accomplish. Indeed his career, starting at Peñarol before moves to Almería and Lisbon, has been a tale of continuous development amid pressure and expectation.

Equally, there is little denying Núñez is behind schedule at Liverpool and, if anything, is slipping further from where he should be. Various factors have contributed, some out of Núñez’s control, and ultimately it could simply be a case of right player, right club but, for both concerned, the wrong time.

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