Liverpool’s response to learning that Sadio Mane wanted to end his six-year stay at Anfield has been swift and decisive.
If news of Mane’s desire to join Bayern Munich was a bitter pill for supporters to swallow in the aftermath of the heartbreaking Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid, the identity of his replacement has quickly transformed the mood.
How do you possibly try to fill the void created by losing such an influential and adored attacker? The answer is: you spend big on one of the most exciting and explosive young strikers in European football.
The signing of Darwin Nunez from Benfica is a booming statement of intent. The deal is understood to be worth an initial £64 million with a further £21 million in potential add-ons.
The Uruguay international swiftly emerged as Liverpool’s top target and his services have been secured by new sporting director Julian Ward with a minimum of fuss. No summer-long saga here.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) June 14, 2022
It certainly helped that, once the 22-year-old learned from Jurgen Klopp’s interest, his mind was quickly made up. There were other suitors, not least Manchester United and Atletico Madrid, but Nunez only wanted Liverpool. He left Benfica in no doubt about that.
The opportunity to play for Klopp was a major factor given the German’s track record for developing talent and elevating players into the world-class bracket. Another was the prospect of walking out at Anfield on a regular basis, having been blown away by the atmosphere during April’s Champions League quarter-final second leg.
That night also served to reinforce what Klopp and his coaching staff already believed — Nunez would be the perfect fit for Liverpool.
A chaotic 3-3 draw saw a much-changed Liverpool side advance 6-4 on aggregate but the performance of Benfica’s combative No 9 left a lasting impression. With Virgil van Dijk rested, center-backs Ibrahima Konate and Joe Gomez both had problems dealing with Nunez’s physicality and pace.
There was an ice-cool dinked finish past Alisson and Nunez would have had another goal late on but for a fine sprawling save from the Brazilian keeper.
Before that game, Klopp had been asked about the threat he posed. “Extremely good-looking boy, huh?” he laughed. “And a decent player as well. I knew before of course but he played pretty much in front of me with his tough battles with Konate. Physically strong, quick, he was calm around his finish. Really good. If he’s healthy, it’s a big career ahead of him.”
Eight days earlier Nunez had pounced on Konate’s error to score in the first leg at Estadio da Luz. His all-round display on that occasion led to Van Dijk later describing him as one of his toughest opponents, comparing him to Manchester City new boy Erling Haaland. “A bit similar — very direct, quick, tall, strong and it’s quite difficult to play against him,” the Dutchman said.
Liverpool’s recruitment team had been keeping close tabs on Nunez long before he passed that two-legged audition against them.
His rise had commanded their attention following his arrival at Spanish second-tier club Almeria from Penarol in his homeland three years ago.
A tally of 16 goals in 30 league games convinced Benfica to pay a club-record €24 million (£20.9 million) for him in 2020. It proved to be a shrewd investment.
There was a period of adaptation with his debut season in Portugal hampered by injuries, a bout of COVID-19 and getting to grips with expectation levels. The return of 14 goals in 44 appearances was unspectacular as he found the net every 206 minutes.
However, after recovering from knee surgery last summer, Nunez went to the next level. Last season he scored 34 goals in 41 games in all competitions — one every 83 minutes. His tally of 26 league goals earned him the Silver Ball as the Primeira Liga’s top scorer.
Liverpool have shortlisted attackers such as Jonathan David, Ismaila Sarr and Jarrod Bowen in recent years but a look at Nunez’s highlights reel for Benfica shows why he was the preferred choice.
There are thumping headers, aided by his 6ft 2ins frame, and composed close-range finishes with both feet. He has a habit of being in the right place at the right time. He can hold the ball up and he’s also adept at bursting in behind defences, showcasing the physique required to hold off opponents. He will be licking his lips at the prospect of getting on the end of deliveries from Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
Predominantly, Nunez has been used through the middle by Benfica but he’s more than a conventional No 9. He’s equally effective operating from the left as he cuts inside to wreak havoc.
Liverpool believe he has all the qualities required to light up the Premier League and he represents the next step in the evolution of Klopp’s side.
The £45 million signing of Diogo Jota from Wolves two years ago broke up the long-established front three of Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
Luis Diaz then provided a new dimension with the remarkable impact he made following his £50 million move from Porto in late January.
With Divock Origi joining AC Milan as a free agent, Takumi Minamino set to follow Mane out of the exit door this summer and Firmino’s game time dwindling, Liverpool needed a young, dominant, dynamic attacker capable of operating through the centre. This represents a long-term investment.
Nunez ticks all the boxes for Klopp in terms of having already delivered at a high level but with massive potential to raise the bar further. The character references were also glowing. Nunez’s humility, strong work ethic and burning desire to improve were among the feedback from those who know him best.
The club’s Spanish speakers will go out of their way to help him settle in, just as they did for Diaz.
Some will inevitably question the wisdom of spending so much on a player who essentially only has one great season under his belt. It’s also a big step up from the Primeira Liga.
But Liverpool’s belief in his ability is fueled by the fact he’s already shone at the highest level in the Champions League. His tally of six goals in 10 games in the competition in 2021-22 included a brace against Barcelona, a goal away at Bayern Munich and the winner against Ajax which sent Benfica through to that last-eight tie against Liverpool.
Yes, there are rough edges to Nunez’s game that need to be ironed out. He’s far from the finished article but that’s the kind of project Klopp and Pep Lijnders thrive on. If they had expected to snap him up, they would have either gone elsewhere this summer or the asking price would have kept climbing if he had stayed put and enjoyed another prolific campaign in Lisbon.
It’s the second time in six months Liverpool have raided the Portuguese market and Diaz certainly handled the step up with aplomb. The hope is that Nunez will follow suit.
With Mane’s secured replacement, the priority now has to be sorting out Salah’s contract situation. The newly-crowned PFA Player of the Year, who is about to enter the final year of his existing deal, has yet to receive an improved offer since the season finished.
Mane will be missed. But the show goes on — and a front three of Diaz, Nunez and Salah from the start of next season is mouthwatering.
(Top photo: Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)