Darwin Núñez is a man in demand. It is no surprise to see yet another Benfica youngster linked with a big move in Europe, however usually the players attracting this level of attention have graduated from the conveyor belt of young talent that is Benfica’s own academy. Núñez has undergone a different path to the Benfica first team, but the demand for his services is ultimately the same as the likes of Bernardo Silva, Ángel Di María, Ederson, and Rúben Dias that have come before him.
At only 22, Núñez is riding the wave of a momentous season in front of goal. The Uruguayan has scored 31 goals in 38 games in all competitions for Benfica and has also managed four assists; forcing his way into contention for a starting spot for his country in the process.
This season has seen Núñez explode onto the scene, with his six goals in ten Champions League games proving that he can score goals at the very top level. He signed for the Portuguese giants with whom who currently resides in the summer of 2020 and managed a respectable 14 goals in all competitions in his first campaign, but few could have predicted the meteoritic rise he has endured this season to come so quickly. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, though. After all, Núñez became the record transfer in Portuguese football after signing for €24m from Almería in the Spanish second division. It is not without risk to spend so much, in relative terms compared with the usual fees in Portuguese football, on a player who has only played in Europe for one season, having made just 22 appearances for his hometown club, Peñarol, prior to that. Due to the financial backing of a number of leagues in Europe, the likes of Benfica have to be creative in their pursuit to find the best young talent around the globe and, following 16 goals in 32 appearances at Almería, it was reasonable to assume Núñez had a very high ceiling.
Profiling Darwin Núñez
With his long hair swept back by a hairband, Núñez has the appearance of a South American forward from a bygone era. The likes of Hernán Crespo, Diego Forlán, and Gabriel Batistuta became synonymous with similar hairstyles throughout their career. However, Núñez’ playing style has a modern twist that makes him primed for the current era. A lot of this comes down to his size and speed. Often strikers have one or the other: pace or physical presence. Núñez possesses both. At 6 foot 2 inches he is a powerful, physical, presence who is good aerially, but he is no slouch either. In fact, according to UEFA’s data, Núñez’ top recorded speed in the Champions League this season is 36.5km, which is higher than the likes of Raheem Sterling (33.5km/h), Leroy Sane (34.9km/h), and remarkably even Kylian Mbappe (34.9km/h). This blend of pace, strength, and height makes Núñez a defender’s nightmare.
The Benfica forward is right-footed but is very capable with his left foot, as well as his head. This means he poses a greater threat as he is unpredictable and more difficult to defend against. To evidence this, his goals in the Primeira Liga this season can be broken down to 16 with his right foot, five with his left, and four with his head. He is certainly a poacher by nature, with only one of his league goals coming from outside the box this season. This isn’t to say he only scores easy goals, though.
Núñez has a knack of finding a way to convert his more difficult chances, as shown by the fact he has massively outperformed his expected goals (xG) in the league this season. For clarity, xG is a metric which estimates the quality of a chance given a number of variables, such as shot type, shot location, and a number of other factors. Núñez’ xG so far in the league this season has been 15.28 whilst his actual goal tally is 25. To outperform your xG by almost 10 goals is no mean feat and should demonstrate to any interested parties that this is not just a lucky streak in front of goal. Make no mistake, Núñez is a sharpshooter with a hunger for goals.
He scores in big games, too. There are often doubts over the ability of players who play outside of Europe’s typical ‘top’ leagues over whether form in these divisions can be replicated in leagues deemed to be of a higher standard. There is always risk associated with these kind of moves, but the snobby nature of casting doubt over players who have taken an alternative career path to the top is becoming less common. Players who have performed well at the top clubs in Portugal have often translated this into the perceived superior leagues, with Benfica having a long list of examples of this of their own. The fortunes of Luis Díaz since his January move to Liverpool from Porto, and the form of Bruno Fernandes in his first 18 months at Manchester United after joining from Sporting Lisbon, are evidence of just how fruitful cherrypicking from the Primera Liga can be.
Núñez recently scored the first in a 2-0 second versus third league victory over Sporting Lisbon, but it is the 22-year-old’s exploits in the Champions League that have displayed his appetite for the big occasion best. In the second group game of this season’s competition, Núñez scored twice as Benfica put three past Barcelona. He also scored in an away defeat to Bayern Munich, the vital winner in round of 16 victory away at Ajax, and home and away against Liverpool in the quarter finals. Six goals in ten games in his maiden voyage into club football’s most prestigious tournament; this is not a man frightened of the reputations of those he faces.
Benfica tend to switch between playing either a 442 or 343 formation, albeit they have deployed a 4231 system on a couple of occasions in recent weeks. In the 442 and 4231, Núñez plays as a central striker as would be expected, but in a 343 the Uruguayan often operates as the left-sided striker in the front three. Although he is technically the left-sided striker in this role, he does still tend to operate more centrally than you would expect from a winger in a similar system. Whilst Núñez is undoubtedly a striker, at times in his career he has operated as an attacking midfielder or a more conventional left winger. This adaptability can only serve to help the young striker in his career, though if asked the man himself will likely describe himself as purely a centre forward.
A player with so much potential to add to the levels he has already reached, does he have any weaknesses? There are no glaring weaknesses, especially not those that cannot be coached, but given his frame and stature it can be argued that Núñez should be more effective with his back to goal than he currently is. He likes to run in behind and play on the shoulder or break into the box to get on the end of incoming crosses, but his link-up play requires improvement if he is to reach the elite level. He likes to run with the ball and drive at his man, but when he finds himself with his back to goal his passing and ability to protect the ball and keep possession can let him down somewhat. The positive thing for Núñez, and anyone looking to sign him, is that this is something that tends to come with experience and can also be coached. At 22, few could expect Núñez to be the finished article with a perfectly polished, all-round, game. There will be few better places to learn this skill than on international duty, where Núñez can learn from one of the best in this regard in Edinson Cavani.
Where could Núñez go?
It is looking increasingly likely that Núñez’ future beyond the current season will lie away from Benfica. With the intense interest the frontman is generating, coupled with Benfica’s model of developing players before selling them on for a large profit, there is an air of inevitability to an imminent transfer. The only question that remains, then, is where will his next destination be?
There are certainly no shortage of options for the number nine to consider. One of which may be Barcelona, who should be kicking themselves that they didn’t take the advice of former striker Luis Suarez, who identified his compatriot as someone the Catalan club should be targeting while he was still plying his trade in the Spanish second tier. This ship may have sailed, though, as it is unlikely the Camp Nou club will be able to compete financially with other interested parties due to their ongoing monetary constraints.
Another club rumoured to be considering a move are Barcelona’s biggest rivals, Real Madrid. The pursuit of Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland are the priorities for the Madrid hierarchy, but it is likely that a failed pursuit of either striker, or both, could see them turn to Núñez. Whether this move would be right for Núñez at this moment in time is up for debate. The Bernabéu faithful are notoriously unforgiving and Núñez’ tender years won’t protect him should things not go well. It is an all encompassing environment that can swallow up even the most experienced of players and it may be too early for Núñez to take that risk currently.
The Uruguayan just has to look at the situation of Luka Jovic, who joined Madrid as one of the most exciting young strikers in the world in 2019 and has barely had a sniff of football since. This has largely been down to the influence of Karim Benzema, whose game has reached stratospheric levels in the past few seasons,. but even the most pessimistic of individuals would have expected Jovic to have been given more opportunities than he has. Benzema does not look to be going anywhere,. having hit 40 goals in a campaign for the first time in his career, so if Núñez wants a starring role he may have to look elsewhere.
If latest murmurings are to be believed, then it is two English clubs who are the frontrunners for the prospect’s signature. Liverpool have been heavily linked and are said to be actively pursuing the signing, while Manchester United are also said to be very keen on signing Núñez.
Liverpool as a footballing side are streets ahead of United currently and provide Núñez with a real opportunity for instant trophies and success. The thing with Liverpool that may be off-putting is their tremendous depth in attacking areas. Jurgen Klopp’s men currently have Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Luis Díaz, Roberto Firmino, and Diogo Jota battling for three attacking spots. Most clubs would dream of having one or two players of this calibre leading their attack, but to have five is frightening. The futures of Salah and Mane, and even perhaps Firmino, are not concrete and the three have all been linked with moves away from Anfield, but if they are to stay then it is a forward line that would be difficult to break into. Of course there is now rotation in the attacking areas for Liverpool and there will be plenty of games as Liverpool look to challenge on all fronts, but will Núñez want to battle so hard for a chance? On the other hand, it may be beneficial for Núñez to join a side that won’t be heavily reliant on him instantly and allow him time to adapt to his new surroundings.
United are a club in disarray but steps are now being taken to provide a brighter future at the club. Ajax boss Erik ten Hag will be at the helm next season, with a new, and surely improved, hierarchy at the club. This new dawn at the club may represent an exciting opportunity for Núñez to join at the start of a new era in the red half of Manchester.
Due to his age, Núñez does not necessarily need to join a club where he will win honours instantly. He can afford to join a project where he can develop as the team develops simultaneously and this is a blessing not afforded to too many players who take their step up to the European elite. From a United perspective, they will have to consider whether Núñez fits the profile and style of player they want to join the ten Hag revolution. With the striker valued at £36m by Transfermarkt, but likely much more by Benfica, United cannot afford another expensive mistake so must be sure he is the right man to lead the line for the Red Devils.
Wherever the former Almería man ends up they will boast a player with the world at his feet. Darwin Núñez is a name that we are likely to hear a lot of over the next few years and, all being well, his next club could see his best years. He will want to hit the ground running for whoever’s shirt he represents next season, particularly with the World Cup in Qatar coming in winter of this year. This could be the tournament that sees the baton passed from two greats of Uruguayan football in Suarez and Cavani and, with Núñez, it looks like as though La Celeste are in safe hands.