According to several reports emanating from Europe, Benfica striker Darwin Nunez is all set to be Erik Ten Hag’s first signing of the summer. We look at how the Uruguayan could be a vital cog in the Man United’s revival wheel.
On the 13th of April 2022, Liverpool faced Benfica in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-finals and the game was a pulsating 3-3 draw with the Reds eventually progressing to the semi-finals.
The Kop faithful exited Anfield while breathing an air full of European dreams but a small part of that space had firmly etched in it a Uruguayan forward, not Luis Suarez but a certain Darwin Nunez.
On the night against Klopp’s men, Núñez battled two ginormous defenders, Virgil Van Dijk and Ibrahima Konaté, eventually pouncing on an error by the latter to score Benfica’s third goal. Throughout the game, Núñez was an ever-present threat, constantly making runs in behind Liverpool’s high line, and using his physicality to trouble the much-famed defence. He gained several new admirers that night, and one of them was Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp.
Fast forward to a couple of months, Núñez, according to reports, is the first big target for new Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag, who has the arduous task of lifting the Red Devils out of dark oblivions and taking them back to world football’s crème de la crème.
Although there have been rumors about him potentially joining several clubs in the Premier League such as Liverpool, Tottenham, and Arsenal, it has become increasingly clear that the Uruguayan star could well end up at The Theatre of Dreams, with Man United reported to be close to reaching an agreement for the 22-year-old Nunez.
Manchester United’s Darwinian revival roadmap
Manchester United fans, who ironically will enjoy June and July way more than the actual season, have started licking their lips at the prospect of Núñez joining their ranks, taking in a rush of dopamine you can’t fault them for after one of their worst ever Premier League seasons.
Should Darwin Nunez end up playing in England on the red side of Manchester, what is the kind of impact he could have? Hype and optics are all good (ask Man United fans about Antony Martial) but how does the Uruguayan fit in ETH’s system?
The Uruguayan played 41 games for Benfica this campaign, scoring an impressive 34 goals and assisting four, meaning that he was involved in a goal almost every game. His goalscoring frequency in the league was just 77 minutes, a respectable feat given that he played 28 games. He also impressed in Europe, scoring 6 goals in 10 appearances in the Champions League.
Núñez is a physical and commanding forward, with a profile similar to that of Sebastian Haller, Erik Ten Hag’s star striker at Ajax. Just like Haller, Núñez is excellent in the air and equally lethal in the box.
However, the Uruguayan isn’t merely a target man. A closer look at Nunez’s gameplay shows his quick feet and the ability to carry the ball. This is the same reason that he has been comfortable operating in Benfica’s forward line, often drifting to the left to pick up the ball and carry it forward.
One look at his season heatmap shows his ability to carry the ball and maraud forward while being a dangerous presence in the box.
The ability to carry the ball and scoring big in the Portuguese league certainly doesn’t guarantee success in the Premier League, right? Correct.
Nunez and Ten Hag’s system – A matrimony of harmony?
To determine this, it is first important to understand Ten Hag’s system. The Dutchman generally adopts a 4-3-3 system structured around patient build-up play and a high-intensity press. A good way to describe his Ajax team is that it was similar to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in possession and similar to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool out of possession.
Ten Hag’s Ajax team was compact in defensive transitions, thanks to their inverted fullbacks, while being fluid in attack. Núñez did great work off the ball for Benfica this season, and this is a trait that will certainly benefit Ten Hag’s system at United, especially given the fact that United’s current frontman, Cristiano Ronaldo, holds the unwanted statistic for the lowest pressures per 90 in the 2021/2022 Premier League campaign.
Furthermore, Ronaldo, who will turn 38 next season, doesn’t have the ability to carry the ball the way Núñez does, and this is something that will definitely come into play in the quick transitional style of play that United are likely to adopt under Ten Hag. The graphic below demonstrates some of Núñez’s key strengths that are likely to benefit United.
|Goals/Shot on Target||0.71||99|
|Goals – xG||0.44||99|
|Non-Penalty Goals – Non-Penalty xG||0.41||99|
|Crosses into Penalty Area||0.29||93|
|Tackles (Defensive 3rd)||0.44||94|
|Pressures (Defensive 3rd)||2.49||89|
|Tackles + Interceptions||1.61||82|
|Total Ball Carrying Distance||172.67 (km)||91|
|Progressive Carrying Distance||118.88 (km)||97|
|Carries into Final Third||2.05||94|
|Carries into Penalty Area||2.2||99|
As can be seen from the statistics, Núñez is one of the best ball-carrying forwards in Europe, with 5.42 progressive carries per 90, which puts him in the 91st percentile. Furthermore, he is among the best when it comes to carrying the ball into the opposition penalty area, with an impressive 2.2 carries per game, putting him in the 99th percentile. Not only is Núñez good on the ball, he also boasts an excellent work rate off the ball, with 1.61 tackles + interceptions per 90 (82nd percentile), and an impressive 2.49 pressures in the defensive 3rd (89th percentile).
The most impressive aspect of his game, however, is his finishing ability. The 22-year-old outperformed his xG by an astonishing 0.44, putting him in the 99th percentile, and had 0.31 goals per shot, again placing him in the 99th percentile of all forwards. Put simply, Núñez is an elite finisher as well.
Nunez – United’s answer to City’s Haaland?
Now before you get all worked up and say “don’t compare Nunez to Haaland” and “Haaland is a once in a generation talent,” this by no means is a suggestion that the Uruguayan is better or as good as the Norwegian.
What you can’t deny is that after United’s bitter rivals and Premier League champions City signed Haaland, there needs to be some response from Erik Ten Haag’s contingent.
Believe it or not, Darwin Nunez can be that statement signing and a closer look at the numbers reveals nothing different.
Nunez is a lot more similar to Haaland than you would imagine.
Although Haaland has a bigger reputation and has boasted better goalscoring numbers over the course of his career, Núñez has just had his breakthrough season, and as per statistics, he is almost if not equally as effective as the Norwegian. This comparison can be viewed in the graphic below.
The abovementioned graph reveals that both Núñez and Haaland are goal-scoring machines with elite finishing abilities. Where these 2 players differ, however, is in their passing and dribbling ability.
Haaland is a significantly better passer of the ball than Núñez even though the Uruguayan boasts superior crossing statistics, partly because he often operates on the left. The Norwegian is far better when it comes to through balls, progressive passes, and most importantly, assists.
However, in terms of ball-carrying ability, it isn’t even a discussion. Núñez is by far a better carrier of the ball, in terms of his progressive carries, progressive ball- carrying distance, and his progressive carries into the opposition penalty box. He also offers much more off the ball than does Haaland, boasting far superior statistics when it comes to tackling, interceptions, and pressures.
As is evident, the numbers speak for themselves. Núñez may not yet be the goalscoring machine that Haaland is and has more to prove to even be in the same bracket in terms of pedigree, but when it comes to effectiveness, the Uruguayan is not too off the mark. While City fans may be basking in the glory of the Haaland signing, they must be wary because this Uruguayan starlet, should he arrive, could be a vital cog in United’s transformation under Erik Ten Hag.
Get him, Manchester United
For United, getting Núñez to Old Trafford is almost imperative, and more importantly, would be seen as a statement of intent. While Erling Haaland comes into a champion side with pre-existing superstars in Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish, Nunez, at United, could, under the tutelage of Ten Hag, become the forward United have yearned for since Robin Van Persie.
With Sancho operating on the right, and Ronaldo through the center, Núñez would be a perfect fit on United’s left until the no.9 position is vacated. As the statistics have shown already, Núñez is comfortable operating in this role, having done so successfully on numerous occasions for Benfica.
The Red Devils seem to be the frontrunners at this moment and the rumors have got fans buzzing already. United must move quickly though, because the Uruguayan is a player wanted by several big clubs in Europe, including their bitter rivals Liverpool. Securing the services of this Uruguayan superstar would not only be a massive statement of intent, but it will also set the tone for what could potentially be a transformative summer at United.