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Darwin Nunez: Liverpool striker showing signs of 'exploding' after early struggles

Darwin Nunez had a difficult first season at Liverpool but Jurgen Klopp says he has taken "massive steps" recently and the numbers offer encouragement; watch Tottenham, vs Liverpool live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm

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After an impressive start to the Premier League season, we look at Darwin Núñez's best moments so far.

Darwin Nunez spoke candidly about the challenge of adapting to the Premier League in conversation with Sky Sports in February. "It's a very big change," he said. "Here, the league is stronger, more competitive. I didn't expect it to be so strong."

The £85m Uruguayan was enduring a difficult first season in England but it had been a similar story after joining his previous club Benfica. "The first year went very badly for me. In the second, I exploded," he said. "Here, I think the same thing is happening."

Recent evidence suggests he was onto something.

Nunez finished his first season with 15 goals in all competitions. No disaster in a complicated campaign for Liverpool. But his game-changing strike against West Ham on Sunday was his fourth in only 336 minutes this time around. Something has clicked.

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Alexis Mac Allister's cheeky chip tees up Darwin Nunez's wonder volley against West Ham

His total includes the brilliant, match-winning double against Newcastle in August and while his inconsistency remains - his superbly-taken strike against West Ham came only minutes after missing a far easier chance - his progress is clear. "He has made massive steps in the last few weeks," said Jurgen Klopp on Sunday.

Finishing off chances

The most obvious change is the frequency with which Nunez is now dispatching his chances.

Last season, he scored only nine Premier League goals from 12.16 expected goals, giving him one of the worst negative differentials in the division. This time around, the underlying numbers look different.

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Instead of underperforming on his expected goals, he is now overperforming, scoring three times from an xG of 2.64. It is a small sample size, of course, but the swing is encouraging.

The rushed attempt shortly before his goal against West Ham was a reminder that he remains erratic. Nunez has spurned six big chances in the Premier League this season, according to Opta.

Darwin Nunez graphic

But the kinks in his game are part of his charm to Liverpool fans - Nunez has long been an Anfield favourite - and the misses are easier to tolerate now that the goals are flowing too.

Factor in his two assists, in Liverpool's games against Aston Villa and Europa League opponents LASK, and Nunez is averaging a goal involvement every 56 minutes in all competitions this season.

Klopp has been trying to hone his finishing ever since his arrival. "He has told me I have to be calm when it comes to finishing," added Nunez back in February. "He wants me to take a second longer, because if I shoot with anger, or I rush it, it will always go badly."

Conversely, his recent successes owe more to following his instincts.

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Gary Neville insisted last month that if Darwin Nunez could add finishing to his game, he would be an excellent player for Liverpool

The beauty of his double against Newcastle was the speed of execution, with both strikes taken early after running in behind. The same ruthlessness was evident in his improvised, first-time finish against West Ham in Sunday's game at Anfield.

Klopp's assistant, Pep Lijnders, described Nunez as "a pure intuition player" ahead of Wednesday's Carabao Cup win over Leicester. The difference now is that, following a season to settle in, the 24-year-old has found a level of confidence and conviction to match.

"An intuition player like Darwin needs this kind of confidence," added Lijnders.

Off-the-ball shifts

Nunez is showing a clinical edge but Klopp feels his off-the-ball improvement is even more significant.

"The defensive work he puts in is probably the main difference," added the Liverpool boss on Sunday. "He always wanted (to do it) but it was less coordinated. Now that looks much better."

Nunez's work-rate was never in doubt, even during his toughest spells last season, but Klopp's point about its increased effectiveness can be seen in the numbers.

Darwin Nunez graphic

Tracking data shows a complete transformation in his pressing, with Nunez registering more than twice as many pressures and pressures in the final third per 90 minutes than last term. His average of 25.3 final-third pressures is the highest in the division.

As ever with Klopp's Liverpool, much of the focus is on winning the ball back as quickly as possible after losing it. Collectively, Liverpool's numbers for counter-pressures have risen from 88 to 92 per 90 minutes this season. Nunez has been a big part of the increase.

Klopp has highlighted the importance of Dominik Szoboszlai and Curtis Jones' support from midfield. "We have found a way to do it around him," he added of Nunez's off-the-ball improvement. "Curtis and Dom help a lot in how flexible they are in that way."

Darwin Nunez graphic

The pair started behind Nunez in the games against Aston Villa and West Ham and could be seen working in tandem behind the striker, positioning themselves nearby to close off passing lanes and sometimes even stepping out to press alongside him.

Jones and Szoboszlai have played in close support of Nunez
Image: Jones and Szoboszlai have played in close support of Nunez off the ball

Nunez has combined effectively with Mohamed Salah too, the most notable example coming in the Villa game, when Nunez pressurised Emi Martinez, then jumped across to join Salah in closing down Pau Torres, forcing the corner from which Liverpool opened the scoring.

Darwin Nunez graphic
Image: Nunez presses Aston Villa goalkeeper Martinez
Darwin Nunez graphic
Image: He then joins Salah in pressurising Torres in order to force a corner

Nunez has shown the same willingness to track back.

Early in the win over West Ham, after Alexis Mac Allister had lost possession in the middle of the opposition half, and despite being 10 yards in front of his team-mate, Nunez sprinted all the way back to his own box, making up the ground in the space of a few seconds in order to dispossess Michail Antonio.

Darwin Nunez graphic
Image: Nunez is around 30 yards from the West Ham goal when Mac Allister loses the ball
Darwin Nunez graphic
Image: Seeing Antonio carry the ball forward on the break, he sprints back into his own half
Darwin Nunez graphic
Image: Nunez then tackles Antonio, forcing a throw and earning applause from the home fans

"He has this extreme mentality to run and fight and arrive in positions no-one thinks he can arrive," added Lijnders earlier this week. "This guy has a fire inside him," said team-mate Alisson Becker. The tackle on Antonio showed those qualities in action.

Availability and link play

Nunez is helping his team-mates on the ball as well as off it.

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Watch highlights from Liverpool's 3-1 win over West Ham

"He was always available," Klopp added of Nunez's display against West Ham. "It's super important for us now that we have a ball player (up front). Chip the ball, get it on the chest and play from there."

Klopp picked out Nunez's contribution to Liverpool's third goal against Wolves earlier this month.

Having taken down Alisson's long pass and pinned Craig Dawson near the halfway line, he shows impressive strength to spin away from the centre-back, leaving him in a heap on the turf, charging into space ahead of him and releasing Salah, who subsequently tees up Harvey Elliot for a low shot which deflects in off Hugo Bueno.

Darwin Nunez graphic
Image: Nunez controls Alisson's long kick on the halfway line
Darwin Nunez graphic
Image: He shrugs off Dawson and turns into the space behind him
Darwin Nunez graphic
Image: Nunez then releases Salah with a through-ball

Nunez's increased involvement in Liverpool's approach play can be seen in his numbers for touches and passes.

Last season, he averaged 36.7 and 19.7 per 90 minutes respectively in the Premier League. In the early stages of the new campaign, those numbers are up to 44.8 and 23.6 per 90 minutes.

Nunez, known for bringing a chaos factor, is now combining effectively with his fellow forwards too, his improvement helping to bring the best out of Salah, Diogo Jota, Luis Diaz and Cody Gakpo.

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Watch highlights from Liverpool's dramatic comeback win at Newcastle

Between them, that quintet have scored 11 of Liverpool's 15 Premier League goals, giving Liverpool hope that their formidable firepower could propel them back into title contention.

The challenge for Nunez is to continue in the same vein against Tottenham on Saturday. Another eye-catching performance would add to the sense that, with a difficult first season in England now behind him, he is finally ready to explode, just as he predicted.

Watch Tottenham, vs Liverpool live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm

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