Darwin Nunez could supplant Virgil van Dijk as Liverpool’s record signing, if certain add-ons are triggered. He has already outdone him in one respect. It took the Dutchman 84 minutes to score on his Liverpool bow. Even including injury time, the Uruguayan only needed 37. As those debut goals came against Everton and Manchester City respectively, they seem particularly auspicious.
And if Van Dijk was never going to be judged on his goal return, he is proof that price tags tend to be mentioned far more before a signing has proved a success. He is described as the £75 million man less frequently these days.
Nunez cost £64 million, which could rise to £85 million. Van Dijk has made a career out of looking unflustered. He had the temperament to cope with the added attention. Nunez may be under a little less pressure after his startling impact in the Community Shield. “To score that goal was important, but for him it’s the same as it was for me; the transfer fee is not something you should think about,” said the defender. “I don’t think he does.”
Nunez is also following in others’ footsteps. A theme of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool is an ability to sign players who can slot straight in, their immediate impacts testament to astute recruitment. Sadio Mane scored after 63 minutes of his debut, Mohamed Salah after 57 minutes of his. It took Diogo Jota just 41 minutes on the pitch to open his account, spread over two substitute appearances.
The trademark Klopp scorers tend to have common denominators – speed, a willingness to head straight for goal, an elusiveness in the box – but Nunez, more of a towering centre-forward than a versatile winger, could be defined by the differences with his predecessor.
Klopp has spent recent weeks warning of an adaptation period. Instead, while Manchester City and Erling Haaland rarely looked on the same wavelength, Nunez and Liverpool looked better suited to one another. “Obviously he is a totally different player to Sadio, for example,” Van Dijk added. “But we have moved on, we got him in, different player, different qualities, and we can use those in a positive way.
“You see he is direct: he makes good runs in behind, he’s quick, he’s strong. He’s a modern-day striker. Haaland is the same. They have similar attributes, and they are difficult to play against. He [Nunez] showed it. He came on at a time when City were a little bit more fatigued, I think, and caused difficulties for them, scoring and getting the handball.”
If it points to a possible role as a super-sub in the short term, tearing into tiring defences after Roberto Firmino has worn them out with his relentless running, the role model for the newcomer may be the least prolific of Klopp’s definitive front three. Van Dijk was the defender who got off to a scoring start. Firmino is the attacker who defends from the front. That the Brazilian started against City was perhaps in part due to his status as the disruptor in chief.
“We play in a way that as a striker, you do a lot of defending as well,” Van Dijk said. “That’s something strikers have to learn. Bobby obviously mastered it and I think he’s one of the best ones in that position to do it. For Darwin to learn from Bobby, but also bring his own qualities into the game with runs in behind, mixing it up, it’s good.”
It is partly a question of energy and partly one of detail, of understanding the finer points of the pressing game. The positional element of Liverpool’s high-speed football can be underestimated; they can wreak chaos in a planned fashion.
And yet if they can sign types of players, ones who look natural fits in a Klopp side, if their budget equips them to attract high-quality recruits, Haaland’s uneasy start to life at City shows it is not as simple as pairing a very good player with a very good team.
Plug-and-play brilliance can come courtesy of chemistry and momentum, the sort of qualities that can be hard to quantify in statistical analyses of potential recruits. First impressions have counted for a lot in Liverpool’s forward line in the Klopp era. And if the distinguished group of their debut scorers was founded rather earlier and includes Roger Hunt and Kevin Keegan, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, Nunez finds himself in good company now.