Darwin Núñez arrived at Liverpool in the 2022 summer window from Benfica. His previous stint in Portugal was fruitful; he scored 34 goals in 40 total appearances. The game that caught the attention of many soccer fans and mainstream news outlets was Benfica vs. Barcelona, where Núñez netted a brace to triumph over a catastrophic Barca side still reeling from financial turmoil.

The Uruguayan winger started his debut season in England well. He scored in the Community Shield against Manchester City and the Premier League opener against Fulham. But, Núñez hit a barren patch for a month. He did not score in a Liverpool shirt for seven-straight games, and that is when doubts began to rise.

Núñez had a knack for being clutch. He scored the lone goal in a win over West Ham. In the last 13 minutes against Napoli at Anfield, he scored and picked up an assist. Also, he scored against Arsenal at the Emirates, even though it was an eventual loss, 3-2.

His most recent, memorable performance was his brace in Liverpool’s 7-0 thrashing of Manchester United. A solid header from a Harvey Elliot cross and another glancing header from Jordan Henderson’s cross capped off a great game.

Núñez, as he’s shown all season, is athletic, pacy and physical. Importantly, he possesses raw talent. His start in England has had blunders, as one would expect. He headbutted Crystal Palace’s Joachim Andersen in a youthful mistake. Despite that, he has had a great season given the pressure stuffed on his shoulders.

Despite his performances during the season, Núñez picked up considerable hate over a lack of finishing. How warranted is that criticism, and how does it hurt Núñez’s game?

What do the stats say?

Núñez is one of the most dangerous forwards in the Premier League, if not in Europe. He has eight goals in the Premier League, tied for second in his team and sixteenth in the Premier League. The Uruguayan also has four goals in four Champions League games. He is also a good creator, getting three Premier League assists.

These are respectable numbers, especially for someone in a debut season who is just 23. Even then, those statistics do not tell the full story of his game.

Football Reference claims he has one of the worst goals minus expected goals totals. This stat calculates how many goals players score off of chances. The higher, the better, as it shows you score goals from little or bad chances. The average amount is around -0.1, but Núñez has one of the worst in the league, with -2.3. Compare that to Erling Haaland’s +6.3, and there is a huge gap. But, to be fair to Núñez, Haaland’s output this season is simply remarkable for any player.

Núñez has also taken the fifth-most shots on target (30) while boasting an efficient 40% shooting accuracy. He also has an xG total of 10.3 without penalties, good for fourth in the league. It may show that Núñez is somewhat unlucky, but you would not see that in his play.

The most noticeable part of his game is his perceived wastefulness. He does have problems getting the ball off his foot sometimes, and he often passes up or hesitates on big chances, but many of the “bad misses” that Núñez gets end up being great saves.

Here’s a Núñez shot in the Community Shield that many branded as a bad miss. That completely overlooks a textbook Ederson sweeper-style save.

Or an incredible goal-line block by Brentford’s Ben Mee in a 3-1 loss for Liverpool.

Núñez is also one of the best creators in the league, playing second fiddle to an always-reliable Mohamed Salah. In Jürgen Klopp’s system, Núñez often drifts out toward the touchline, leaving lots of space for Salah and fellow new signing Cody Gakpo to play from. It leads to an overload on the flanks while helping Núñez thrive in a more advanced but creative position. Núñez creates 3.23 shots per 90 minutes and gets a whopping 9 touches in the opposing penalty area per 90, making him an essential part of the Liverpool front three.

Does Darwin Núñez deserve the Liverpool loathing?

Although there are credible worries about his shooting ability and composure in front of goal, it is silly to say Núñez is not one of the forces propping Liverpool up in dire times. His goal-scoring ability and playmaking are a breath of fresh air. It’s confusing why fans are aiming their complaints at a winger who has been in good form this season.

If you’re wondering why Liverpool has regressed so much, you might find it in the Reds’ aging midfield. Fabinho is 29, Thiago is 31 and Jordan Henderson is 32. 37-year-old James Milner has also had some playtime. The effects of Klopp’s intense gegenpressing system are visible on all four players.

But, teenage sensation Stefan Bajcetic is getting more play time, Fabio Carvalho is getting encouraging cameos and English talent Harvey Elliot is impressing this season. Although Liverpool has old players in their ranks, a new generation will take their place in the following seasons.

But until then, Klopp will have to rely on the on-fire front three of Mohamed Salah, Darwin Núñez, and Cody Gakpo as they face some existential questions on Wednesday as Liverpool travels to Real Madrid.

PHOTO: IMAGO / Colorsport