Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has said he is afraid of the heights Darwin Nunez could reach if the Uruguayan striker continues his goal-scoring form – and it feels like the remainder of the Premier League should be too, with the striker swiftly unlocking his true potential at Liverpool.
Many pundits were quick to write off Nunez after a tricky first year on Merseyside but those critics have since been silenced.
His first season at the club was not terrible but it was perhaps fair to say he did not fully live up to the huge billing after his £85million move from Benfica.
He was not helped by the phenomenal goal-scoring rate of Erling Haaland at Manchester City after the pair were pitted together as a showdown of strikers by broadcasters as the Premier League’s main protagonists ahead of last season.
Nunez was also blighted by how long it took him to adapt to life in his new surroundings.
He arrived with little English language skills and that held him back somewhat, while Klopp thought his off-the-ball work needed to improve to cement a place in the starting XI.
On his home debut at Anfield, he was sent off for a headbutt on Crystal Palace defender Joachim Andersen and subsequently banned for three matches.
That moment summed up a frustrating, injury-hit and sub-par introductory year on the pitch for Nunez in England.
But all of that is behind him now. Instead of the noise of critics, Nunez is now letting his numbers do the talking. Seven goals and five assists for Liverpool – that’s 0.93 goals per game, up from 0.57 last term.
Only Callum Wilson has a higher non-penalty xG (expected goals) in the Premier League this season, putting Nunez above heavyweight Haaland and Co.
He is averaging 10 touches in the opposition box – up from 8.22 last season – and taking on a league-high 4.9 shots per game.
Klopp said Nunez’s ‘golden ticket’ to the first team would be his work-rate off the ball and his contribution to defensive dirty work.
Those stats also look good for Nunez. He’s averaging 1.33 tackles per game – it was 0.61 last term – and his possession won numbers are also on the up.
On Friday, the German said he was ‘afraid’ of the heights the Uruguayan can hit in English football if he unlocks his true potential, adding that the feeling around the striker is ‘different’ this season.
‘It is completely different now, the first year was hard for him and then hard for me as well,’ said the German boss, speaking ahead of Liverpool’s trip to Luton. ‘You saw this incredible talent, massive potential but it is hard to unfold it.
‘I don’t speak Spanish and he didn’t speak English but his English is now much better. Now you see him around the building and he is in a very good moment. I am a bit afraid of the highs he could reach, there is so much there.
‘Last year especially when things did not go particularly well, it was super important that everything was set up perfectly and we needed a No 9 who defended perfectly (from the front) in a way Darwin was not able to do then… Now he can.
‘The speed, the finishing skills, the desire he has… when he’s fit he is really fit so he can go and go again. You just don’t know where he will end up. He came in for really big money. It shows again that players need time, we forget that. But Darwin is fully here now and it’s different.’
There is healthy competition in the Liverpool squad among South Americans, with Klopp encouraging friendly banter around a ‘league table’ between his contingent from Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.
Summer arrival Alexis Mac Allister has been crucial for Nunez. The Argentine World Cup winner, who signed from Brighton for £35million and has started every Premier League game, has acted as an on-pitch translator for Nunez and Co.
‘Macca is a super smart footballer,’ said Klopp this week of the midfielder, who is now thriving in the unusual No 6 role. ‘So if I forget something to tell him, Macca tells him anyway. They are really close with each other.’
Marcelo Bielsa is now Nunez’s boss at the national team and there is no doubt the former Leeds coach has also played a role in his development as an all-round forward.
Nunez scored and got an assist last month as Uruguay beat Brazil for the first time in 21 years.
Back on Merseyside, assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders is said to be crucial in encouraging Nunez to focus on remaining calm, especially when he misses big chances in matches.
He still does shank a couple of shots each game, but the difference now is he scores a couple, too.
Nunez is thriving off confidence and Klopp added: ‘It’s the riddle of the life of a striker. You have a few goals already and it makes it easier.
He always will miss chances. Now he has had a good start to the season and he has scored fantastic goals, different goals, all kinds of goals.’