Reading into pre-season form and performances can be a bit of a risk and yet we all do it. It can’t be helped.
Look at Liverpool’s results during the 2019 pre-season as a good example of this.
The Reds lost to Borussia Dortmund, Sevilla and Napoli. They only managed a draw with Sporting before picking up a win over Lyon. A few days after that, they lost on penalties to Manchester City in the Community Shield. The Premier League then kicked off and Liverpool won 26 of their opening 27 matches on their way to the title.
That is an extreme example, but you get the point. You can’t use what goes on in these friendlies to predict what will happen once the season is underway.
This was sort of the case last year with Darwin Nuñez.
He netted four times in the 5-0 win over RB Leipzig. The former Benfica then changed the game after coming off the bench against Manchester City in the Community Shield to help the Reds secure a 3-1 win over Pep Guardiola’s men.
It was something of a false dawn though, with Darwin struggling for consistency in front of goal throughout 2022/23.
Because of this, a lot of people are refusing to get carried away with his goalscoring exploits right now. I’m not one of them though.
In his three pre-season outings, Liverpool’s new number nine has four goals. He’s featured in 140 minutes across these three matches and he’s taken a total of seven shots, with six testing the goalkeeper, per WyScout. His combined Expected Goals total in these games is 1.99.
This is a different version of Darwin.
Whereas last season he was shooting on sight and rushing everything, this current form looks a lot more sustainable and stable. His xG per shot average comes in at 0.28, double what it was during his debut campaign in England. Granted, the sample size is tiny and the opposition hasn’t been the best so you shouldn’t read too much into it, it does show signs of improvement though. Signs of improvement that should not be overlooked. This is player development but it is also likely tied to the new system as well as some of Liverpool’s summer signings.
Last season, Cody Gakpo replaced Darwin as the man to lead the attack for Jurgen Klopp’s side. His defensive contributions as well as his ability to link play meant he was chosen ahead of the £64m signing.
The midfielders weren’t able to retain possession and progress play in the required way, so Gakpo was an extra man centrally when the Reds were in possession. He would drop deep to pick up the ball and keep things moving.
With the likes of Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai, there is less emphasis on the centre-forward doing that. Instead, the spearhead of the attack can play as a traditional striker, on the shoulder of a centre-back in and around the penalty area.
A good example of this can be seen during the 4-0 win over Leicester City.
Mac Allister, highlighted, drops into the pocket of space having drifted in from his right-sided midfield role. He plays a first-time pass around the corner to Bobby Clark and this takes a number of Leicester players out of the game.
Previously, when Gakpo was the centre-forward, he would’ve been the one dropping off into the space the new Liverpool number 10 finds himself in to try and link play.
The Reds now have technically secure players in all four positions of their box midfield and this frees up the centre-forward to be a proper goalscorer again as opposed to a false-nine. This roles suits Darwin and if this was the vision, it is clear to see why he was signed.
The fact Mac Allister is there doing that allows Darwin to stay fairly advanced, as seen in the screenshot above. This particular move doesn’t result in anything of real note but you can see how the dynamic is now different. The Uruguayan can hold his position high up the pitch and not bother involving himself in the build-up. This plays to his strengths and masks his weaknesses, something Liverpool should’ve been doing all along.
The same thing happened for the opener.
Curtis Jones plays a pass into Trent Alexander-Arnold who then fires a left-footed effort into Mac Allister who had taken up a fairly central position. He takes a touch before threading a pass into the patch of Diogo Jota. His shot is parried away only for Darwin to react and fire the ball into an empty goal.
With Mac Allister taking up the position he does, Darwin is able to get into the box. The more this happens during the new season, the better the position the number nine will find himself in and the more dangerous he will be for the Reds.
He might average fewer shots than before and there might not be as much chaos to his game but if he’s a reliable goal threat who works well within the system, does it actually matter? If this is a precursor for what is to come, he could well replicate his second season in Portugal.
Goals. And a lot of them.