With Cody Gakpo sidelined, Darwin Núñez looks set to cement his place in Liverpool’s starting XI for the short term at least.
The Dutch went down in pain after netting Liverpool's equaliser in the controversy-filled defeat to Spurs at the weekend, with it later revealed that he left the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in a leg brace.
While fears of a serious injury have been alleviated, he will at least miss Liverpool's next two games.
It's poor timing for Gakpo and the Reds. The 24-year-old was beginning to find form as a front man, scoring three in his last four, while Liverpool need all the options they can get as the tricky fixtures pile up this autumn.
However, it does now open up a door for Núñez to reassert his position as first-choice striker.
How then, does the Uruguayan stylistically compare to the Dutchman?
Núñez is much more of a traditional striker, preferring to occupy the last line of defence rather than progress the ball from deep.
But what does he bring to the table?
Pace and Power
Núñez is an incredibly aggressive, all action centre-forward.
The Uruguayan was a constant threat when he faced off against the Reds for Benfica in the Champions League, with his physicality and speed proving problematic. To date, he remains the only player to ever pose a significant physical challenge to Ibrahima Konaté.
Núñez’s traits are perfect for Liverpool’s traditionally more direct style, and it is easy to see why Klopp insisted on his signing.
Agent of Chaos
Núñez is, in the best way possible, freakish.
He dominated so many attacking metrics in 2022/23 that you would be baffled as to how he managed these numbers in such a dysfunctional team.
For example, according to Opta data, he ranked in the 99th percentile for attacking contribution, taking the most non-penalty shots per 90 in the league (4.45).
Núñez also accumulated the 4th highest non-penalty xG, and while his finishing was inconsistent, the sheer number of chances he generated was remarkable, especially as he produced many of these moments with little help.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) September 24, 2023
On the counter, Núñez is a particularly terrifying prospect, but the fact he is not solely reliant on open spaces to cause havoc only highlights the potential the Uruguayan has in ‘Liverpool 2.0’.
Additionally, Núñez’s high xG and high shot volume suggests that he could sustainably score at a high rate, should his finishing improve; some goal scorers outperform their xG for a season or two, but by and large, players’ output tends to fall in line with their underlying stats.
An All-Round Striker
Regarding this season, the striker has already significantly contributed.
Games against Newcastle, Aston Villa, and West Ham stand out, with Núñez demonstrating significant development in terms of finishing, link-play, and defending. Jurgen Klopp himself noted that his ‘“defensive work [is] probably the main difference… it was less coordinated. Now that looks much better”’
Perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay to Núñez is that his ‘battering ram’ style means creative players can play passes to him from anywhere and he will do something.
This has already benefitted Mohamed Salah, with the Egyptian enjoying his best creative spell at the club to date.
As a striker, Cody Gakpo prefers to drop deep into the space in front of the opposition backline and link play. With this in mind, what does Gakpo bring to the table?
While not the most active of players, Gakpo’s intelligence and consistency when blocking passing lanes, and marking the opposition defensive midfielder, is excellent.
Cutting off central areas for opponents not only protected Liverpool’s vulnerable midfield last season, but it also allowed Liverpool to push teams wider. Given the Reds love to press in and around the half-spaces, this was particularly effective for springing counter-attacks.
If you look at Gakpo’s raw data from the 22/23 Premier League season, amongst forwards, he ranked in the top 8% for tackles, top 6% for tackles in the middle and attacking thirds, top 1% for dribblers tackled, and top 9% for tackles won (fbref).
His diligence in defensive situations is an under-appreciated aspect of his game, and his work rate helped Liverpool end last season in good form.
Ghosting Behind Markers
Another strong point of Gakpo’s game is his ability to find pockets of space.
Take the away fixture against West Ham in 2022/23; Gakpo dropped deep and positioned himself between Declan Rice and Tomas Souček, appearing uninvolved in play.
Gakpo then received the ball and scored, taking advantage of the pivot’s poor awareness. Notably, the Dutchman also helped open a passing lane to a wide player by drawing attention towards the centre of the pitch. This highlights his ability to facilitate for teammates through his off-ball movement.
Every angle of Cody Gakpo's fantastic leveller last night in #WHULIV 🎯
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) April 27, 2023
With top technicians like Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai, Liverpool should be able to play Gakpo in behind opposition midfields more regularly, where his top ball striking could prove valuable, as it did last season at the London Stadium.
Unfortunately, Gakpo’s minutes in the forward line have been limited this season, but even still, the Dutchman has demonstrated his ability to evade markers and ghost into dangerous areas, with goals against Wolves and Tottenham Hotspur.
Great on The Turn & Top Close Control
A strength of Gakpo as a false nine is his ability to drive with the ball, as the Dutchman specialises in progression via carries.
He ranked in the top 8% of forwards in the 22/23 Premier League season for carries into the final third per 90 minutes (1.98), and ranked in the top 21% for progressive carry distance (70 yards per 90) (fbref).
Once Gakpo picks up speed, he is very difficult to stop, and in transition, his skillset has been, and could be, very useful for Liverpool going forward.
While Núñez’s astronomical impact on matches might make him Liverpool’s starter in the nine role, there is a future where Gakpo plays with the Uruguayan as either a ten, or second striker.
This becomes more likely in a post-Salah Liverpool, where the combined composure and chaos of Gakpo and Núñez could lead the line of ‘Liverpool 2.0’.