How do you solve a problem like Darwin Nunez? Liverpool’s response to that dilemma has now been made clear by their move to sign Cody Gakpo in a £37 million transfer from PSV Eindhoven — a deal that has been done so quietly and efficiently that the Netherlands forward could be signed and sealed at Anfield as soon as the winter transfer window officially opens on Jan. 1.
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It is certainly a surprise transfer considering Liverpool’s clear need for reinforcements in midfield and the reality that, when all options are available, manager Jurgen Klopp already has a strong hand in terms of attacking players. Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino are all sidelined with injuries of varying severity right now, but when they are fully fit, adding them to a group that also includes Mohamed Salah, Fabio Carvalho and Nunez will ensure a regular selection headache for Klopp, even before Gakpo is brought into the equation.
Gakpo will be the third significant attacking signing in 12 months by Liverpool, with Diaz arriving from Porto last January and Nunez completing a club record transfer worth up to £85m in June. Sadio Mane has moved on to Bayern Munich in that time, and the Senegal international has been a huge loss to Liverpool, but that exit has been counter-balanced by Salah committing himself to a new three-year contract in July.
So why do Liverpool need Gakpo, the young Dutch forward who emerged as a star of the World Cup by scoring three times for Netherlands on their run to the quarterfinals?
The answer, or much of it at least, is about Nunez and his hit-and-miss start to life at Liverpool.
Gakpo’s arrival could be viewed in two ways by Nunez. The 23-year-old will either be seen as somebody to help alleviate the goal-scoring burden in Klopp’s team or a threat to his place in the side after a difficult first six months at the club that has promised more than it has delivered.
Time will tell, but Gakpo will hope that his early days at Anfield are more convincing than those of Nunez, who is now on the precipice of being caught in a battle for confidence as well as a search for goals.
Nunez can at least still claim the support of Klopp and the Liverpool fans; criticism of his performances is only coming from outside the club right now. From a Liverpool perspective, Nunez is making up for his lack of goals with incredible work-rate for the team and an obvious desire to come through the tough times he is enduring.
But there are very few examples of Premier League strikers who come good after a difficult start with their new teams following a big move. They either hit the ground running and don’t stop scoring — Salah, Erling Haaland, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Arsenal, Diego Costa at Chelsea, Robin van Persie at Manchester United — or start poorly and never find their scoring touch, which applies to players including Timo Werner, Romelu Lukaku, Alvaro Morata all (Chelsea), Andy Carroll (Liverpool) and Wilfried Bony at Manchester City.
The one obvious exception is Firmino, who scored just one goal in his first 24 appearances for Liverpool following his £29m move from Hoffenheim in 2015. Firmino has since become an undisputed Liverpool legend with his goals and performances, but there aren’t many who can say they have turned a difficult situation around quite like the Brazil international.
Statistically, Nunez has done far better than Firmino in his first six months at Liverpool. Indeed, his goals record is actually more impressive than you might have believed.
In 20 games in all competitions, the 23-year-old has scored nine goals and registered four assists, but it is the missed chances that have led to the spotlight being fixed on the forward. Chances regularly fall his way, but poor decision-making and finishing have led to some glaring misses, raising the age-old question for a striker as to whether it is a good sign that he is getting the chances or a bad one that he isn’t taking enough of them.
Nunez has Expected Goals (xG) of 5.9 in the Premier League this season, which places him in eighth position overall, between Newcastle’s Callum Wilson and Leeds United’s Rodrigo. Manchester City’s Haaland is in first place with an xG of 11.1.
Placing too much emphasis on xG can be misleading, though. Salah’s xG is 7.9, so not significantly better than Nunez’s, but Salah never looks as rushed and rash as Nunez when he has a scoring chance and his ability to score “heavy” goals — goals in tight games which prove decisive — is unmatched by any forward, including Haaland.
Nunez has scored just one “heavy” goal for Liverpool so far — the winner in the 1-0 victory against West Ham in October — so he needs to deliver more often in the big games when chances are at a premium and the value of goals is so much higher.
But in the two games he has played since the World Cup shutdown — against Man City in the Carabao Cup and Aston Villa in the Premier League — Nunez has shown signs of his confidence in front of goal being affected by choosing to pass rather than shoot in goal-scoring positions.
One such pass led to Salah scoring in the 3-2 defeat at the Etihad, but there were other instances at Villa when shooting at goal would have been the better course of action.
If this becomes a trend and Nunez starts to shy away from shooting, a forward who worries about missing chances is no use to anyone, so Gakpo’s arrival will at least give Liverpool insurance against Nunez’s confidence beginning to melt away.
Nunez is now entering a key period of his Liverpool career, however. He needs to persevere and hope he comes good, as Firmino did, but big clubs don’t have much patience with strikers who don’t score enough goals. The signing of Gakpo is proof of that.