Darwin Nunez is Liverpool’s wildcard who can take the fight to Man City

Liverpool 3-1 West Ham: The striker remains a chaotic enigma, but produced the key moment against the Hammers as Jurgen Klopp’s side continued their winning run

Richard Jolly
at Anfield
Sunday 24 September 2023 18:42 BST
<p>Darwin Nunez is averaging a goal every 73 minutes in the Premier League </p>

Darwin Nunez is averaging a goal every 73 minutes in the Premier League

It was a seven-minute snapshot into the enduring enigma of Darwin Nunez. There was the profligacy and the potential to be prolific, the glaring miss and the terrific goal, the possibility he could have been the man to cost Liverpool victory and the eventuality that the pivotal moment in their sixth successive win was his strike.

In a world of certain guarantees, David Moyes’ record at Anfield remains one: after 20 trips as a manager, the Scot still has not won, despite the chances West Ham had to end the former Everton manager’s long wait. But Nunez remains the great wildcard. The only guarantee is unpredictability and, if Nunez himself is not entirely sure what will happen, opponents can stand little chance.

West Ham first benefited and then suffered from Nunez being Nunez. Liverpool fashioned two glorious opportunities shortly after half-time. Mohamed Salah released the Uruguayan for the first: unmarked, by the penalty spot, he sliced a shot wide. When Alexis Mac Allister chipped a pass over the West Ham defence, the £64m man timed his run and angled his volley, perhaps in ungainly fashion, but certainly in an effective manner.

And so the table is taking on a familiar look, with Liverpool the closest challengers to Manchester City, as they often have been in recent years. That owes something to Nunez: mainly his explosive double at Newcastle, in perhaps the most startling comeback of the season so far. His return for the Premier League campaign now stands at a goal every 73 minutes, surrounded by examples of wastefulness.

Perhaps Liverpool have to accept the trade-off with Nunez: that his physicality and irrepressibility mean he will enjoy plenty of opportunities and the probability that some will be missed in embarrassing fashion. Yet on a day when their other two goals were scored by more clinical finishers, in Salah and the substitute Diogo Jota, Liverpool offered an example of their firepower.

Nunez’s charisma is such that Salah can find himself overshadowed on occasions but the Egyptian was the outstanding player on the pitch. He extended his record of either scoring or assisting in each of his last 13 games with a penalty he both won and converted. Jota came off the bench to clinch victory: part of Jurgen Klopp’s task is perming the correct options from his five main forwards and Nunez, granted just a second start of the league campaign, proved the right choice for this.

Nunez celebrates striking against West Ham

The Portuguese’s sharpness makes him a valuable substitute and he had the predatory sense to volley in when Virgil van Dijk headed Andy Robertson’s cross into the six-yard box. Nunez had departed by then, but his contribution to Liverpool’s opener was typically idiosyncratic.

It involved each of the front three. Luis Diaz, who oozed menace, fed a pass into the penalty area. It flicked off Nunez’s boot, perhaps without his knowledge, for Salah. He was upended by Nayef Aguerd and rifled in the resulting penalty.

And yet what both preceded and followed it was revealing of both teams. For a side who have had a terrific start to the season, Liverpool are slow at beginning games. They often trail and, even on a day when they struck first, they could have conceded twice in the opening eight minutes. First Tomas Soucek meeting Lucas Paqueta’s cross with a header Alisson saved superbly. Then, when Soucek crossed, Michail Antonio made a mess of his header. There is a fragility at the back, with clean sheets rarities this season, but their potent attack can find ways of compensating.

Meanwhile, even in defeat, West Ham showed why they briefly topped the table. Moyes’ men have a threat and, without wanting much possession, some ambition on the ball. Jarrod Bowen was both excellent and, in his own way, their Nunez.

Salah fired Liverpool ahead from the spot

The winger equalised, stooping to head in Vladimir Coufal’s cross, guiding it past Alisson; Van Dijk’s attempt to stop the scorer lacked conviction. Any feelings of injustice West Ham had when the winger had been denied a penalty a couple of minutes earlier after a Mac Allister challenge were channelled into levelling.

Yet Bowen, too, spurned a golden chance: unmarked, heading straight at Alisson from James Ward-Prowse’s free kick, a few minutes before Nunez restored Liverpool’s lead. And so West Ham, who had acquitted themselves well against City last week and lost 3-1, repeated the scoreline and with a similar sense. History repeated itself in another respect: they were defeated by a Nunez goal on their previous visit to Anfield. Amid the wildness of his game, the confusion as to what will happen, perhaps the one certainty is that he will score at home against West Ham.

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