Is Luis Diaz ready to explode this season?

There’s a new era at Anfield.

Mohamed Salah is the last one standing of Liverpool’s famous front three after Sadio Mané’s departure to Bayern Munich last summer and Roberto Firmino heading to the Saudi Pro League upon the expiry of his contract in July.

There have been plenty fresh faces through the doors at the club's AXA training ground – Diogo Jota arrived in 2020, Luis Díaz (January) and Darwin Núñez (June) in 2022 and Cody Gakpo in January 2023. One of these in particular has looked ready to step up and be one of the leading figures of Jürgen Klopp’s new look Liverpool – Díaz.

The Colombian signed for Liverpool halfway through the 2021/22 campaign and had immediate impact. His introduction forced Mané into starting centrally, and his combination of flair and effectiveness helped power the club to two trophies, a Champions League final and within a point of a Premier League title. As the 2022/23 season got underway, Díaz was Liverpool’s undisputed first choice left-winger, as Mané had departed for Germany (this was already well underway, but the Senegalese attacker’s departure confirmed it).

He also started last season strongly, scoring four goals and registering two assists in 1,034 minutes of football played. That, however, was all curtailed at the Emirates in early October when he suffered a devastating knee injury that saw him miss 31 games in total. His injury – alongside Jota’s – affected the team than more than is perhaps documented. It affected the side not just in an attacking sense, but also changed the way they could press from the front, with Núñez a willing but unrefined presser. 

While the former Porto player did return late last season and got back to his goalscoring ways, it is the start of this season that has got supporters so excited. Díaz’s pre-season started with a significant personal moment – being given the club's iconic number seven shirt after Milner departed for Brighton. He then followed this up with goals in three of Liverpool’s five pre-season games and put in some memorable performances.

But it’s his performances against Chelsea and Bournemouth that have got people up off their seats. I’ve taken a look at them in more detail, looking at how the Barrancas-born winger may be ready to become the next leading man of Liverpool’s attack. 

Let’s start with the first game of Liverpool’s campaign, the away trip to Stamford Bridge. Díaz started – as he nearly always does – on the left-hand side of Liverpool’s front three. 

Luis Diaz heatmap, via Sofascore

Above is the Colombian’s heatmap and average position against Chelsea via SofaScore. After a year and half (injuries excluding), we are familiar with Díaz’s game. He likes to keep a wide starting position and then either receive the ball and drive inside, or make darting curving runs into central areas. The game in London was a change of pace for Liverpool – a usually dominant possession side had just 35% of the ball. The overwhelming consensus was that Díaz was the Reds' best performer on the day. 

Díaz created a chance early on, receiving the ball just inside the opposition half out wide. He then stands up Chelsea new-boy Axel Disasi before driving inside and then playing a no-look pass between the lines for Cody Gakpo who is making a penetrating run into the box. The play slows down slightly and results in Salah hitting the bar with a shot from outside the area, but if Gakpo’s touch and pass is slightly better we’re likely talking about another Salah goal. Díaz’s ability to slow down the play (allowing the midfielders to make attacking runs) before speeding it back up again in an instant is such a valuable tool for a Liverpool side that thrives in transition. He is also, by the end of the move, the furthest man forward, and if Salah’s shot bounces back into the box rather than over the top of the bar, Díaz would have been in acres of space for a tap-in.

Liverpool’s goal in the game was a brilliant team goal. There was some quick build-up play from Alisson, Szoboszlai before Alexis Mac Allister sends a sweeping ball into the feet of Salah, who then plays an inch perfect ball for Díaz to slide and finish. 

Díaz only has one touch in the entire move – putting the ball in the net. Yet he is so effective before the ball is even anywhere near him. As the ball is passed to Salah, Díaz is again pushed high and wide, he has positioned himself on the wrong side of Reece James already and is on his blindside (James is facing the ball and isn’t aware of Díaz’s movement).

As the Egyptian brings the ball down, Díaz identifies that Chelsea’s centre backs have pushed up a little too high and left space centrally – which he darts into. Díaz doesn’t have to hold his run or speed down, and Salah matches the run with an outrageous pass that Liverpool’s number seven stretches to put the ball past Robert Sánchez. It was a move reminiscent of Salah and Mané’s best years, and if Díaz and Salah can create a similar relationship this season then that increases Liverpool’s chances of success considerably.

While – as mentioned – Liverpool did not have much of the ball, Díaz ensured he was effective on it, he made more progressive carries (4), completed the joint most take-ons (2) and had more shots (4) and put up more expected goals (0.8) than any of his teammates. 

This then brings us to Liverpool’s opening home game of the season. His positioning again, is almost identical to of that at Chelsea (via SofaScore).

Luis Diaz heatmap, via Sofascore

Again, the Colombian is positioned as the furthest forward in the team, staying high and wide before making penetrative runs into the middle of the pitch. While Dominik Szoboszlai stole the show with a performance we haven’t seen from a home midfielder at Anfield for some time, Díaz also put on a memorable performance. His goal alone would have done that…

Díaz keeps a central position in build-up, despite also being the widest left of Liverpool’s front three (a potential benefit of Gakpo in the left central midfield role, who is positioned like a left midfielder in the move). The Bournemouth defender isn’t positioned poorly, and gets out to the ball quickly, but the speed of thought and inventiveness of Díaz is too much for any defender to handle. The ability, while having your back turned to goal, to flick the ball up and acrobatically finish like that is breath-taking, and one that few footballers can claim to have. This was also at a key time in the game, with Liverpool pushing but getting frustrated at being a goal behind. 

Beyond the goal, Díaz was effective throughout. He tormented his man repeatedly – completing three out of four take-ons. It is his ability to take people on both on the outside and by cutting inside. He’s comfortable with both feet and it’s his speed of though, always seemingly a second ahead of his man. He played a crucial role in Liverpool’s third at a time where they desperately needed breathing space after Mac Allister’s unfortunate red card. He switches the play to Alexander-Arnold in space, who is able to knock it down for Szoboszlai’s shot which is put back in by Diogo Jota.

While two games (of which Díaz has played 161 minutes) is not a large sample size, we have already seen two goals and more importantly, two outstanding performances. While it may level off slightly, the Colombian is putting up 0.72 expected goals per 90, which is more than his half season in 2021-22 (0.34) and smattering of games last year (0.23) combined. It is only bettered by the half season in 2021/22 at Porto – in which he scored 14 goals in 18 games.

His general play is looking more and more dangerous, and his ability to spot space and play on the blindside of his man means we’ll likely see him in more and more goalscoring positions. If he can become even more of a poacher, alongside some of the genius things he is able to do with the ball in the spur of the moment, then yes, this may be the season we see Luis Díaz explode into stardom at Liverpool.

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