Darwin Nunez’s Liverpool problems are mounting – and Cody Gakpo stands to benefit

Darwin Nunez couldn’t wait to get off the pitch.

As soon as Paul Tierney blew the final whistle to confirm Liverpool’s 4-2 victory over Tottenham on Sunday, Nunez headed straight for the dressing room. It marked the end of a miserable few minutes for the striker, and summed up both his own frustrations and those of Anfield’s supporters.

On 94 minutes, Liverpool broke with Mohamed Salah releasing Nunez, who had timed his run well. To his left, Cody Gakpo was free, but the Uruguay international delayed his pass and failed to find his team-mate.


In the following minute, he was released in behind again. This time he executed the pass for Salah to convert, only to be flagged offside himself — a trait that has crept into his game and has increased criticism. Nunez removed the white tape on his right wrist and threw it to the ground.


His next action was to attempt to dribble past Pedro Porro near his own penalty area. He got the ball stuck under his feet, but recovered to win a foul and relieve the pressure eventually.


Liverpool had one more counter-attack and Nunez was released in behind again. Goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario committed himself so the striker had the simple option of taking it around the goalkeeper on the edge of his box. Instead, Nunez saw his first-time shot saved, and off came the white tape on his left wrist. The whole episode felt like a literal unravelling of Nunez’s confidence.


Those four minutes were a showcase of Nunez’s extremes, both good and bad. However, in the context of the last month, and with Nunez having only scored once in his last 11 games — against Sheffield United, when he charged down goalkeeper Ivo Grbic’s kick — patience has waned.

The ‘Nunez, Nunez, Nunez’ chant that has reverberated around Anfield on countless occasions, even when he has missed a chance or made a poor decision, was conspicuous by its absence on Sunday.

Nunez himself seems to have lost some of his fizz. Assistant manager Pep Lijnders twice spoke to him individually as he was getting changed ahead of coming on, but when he did enter the field, he did so with markedly little enthusiasm.

This may have been down to the scoreline — Liverpool were 4-1 up and comfortable — but it hardly helped his cause. Shortly after coming on, Alisson sent a long kick downfield but Nunez was unable to contest it as he was standing offside.

He did liven up, especially after Spurs made it 4-2 and the game became more of a contest. From a starting position on the left flank, he charged down a lofted pass…

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… which led to Salah’s comical miss.

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On one occasion, he charged down three Tottenham players in an attempt to win the ball back for his team but that felt the exception rather than the rule.


To compound his problems, Nunez then whipped up a post-match storm by deleting all Liverpool-associated posts from his Instagram account. It can be a ploy used by professional athletes, usually as a way of signalling frustration without having to say anything, but it felt unnecessary and raised more questions over his future as Liverpool prepare for the arrival of new manager Arne Slot.

Liverpool are close to appointing Arne Slot as their new head coach — and The Athletic has every angle covered.

Nunez, having looked so promising earlier this year, is ending the season back where he was a year ago. Then, he frequently found himself on the bench as Liverpool’s fifth strike option, with Gakpo and Diogo Jota ahead of him in the queue to start as the No 9.

Jota is currently injured but, while Nunez has laboured, Gakpo has seized his chance.

Rewind a few weeks, and the Netherlands international was in a similar position to Nunez now. Gakpo was struggling for rhythm and form after a handful of disappointing substitute performances, most notably the FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Manchester United.

But he has answered any doubts emphatically and is ending his first full campaign on Merseyside with a flourish. A goal and an assist on Sunday capped an excellent performance that showcased his attributes as both the central striker and left winger as he frequently switched positions with Luis Diaz.

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Cody Gakpo heads in against Spurs (Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images)

Gakpo and Nunez are very different players, operating at different speeds. Nunez is often an emotional, unpredictable whirlwind while Gakpo exudes calmness — sometimes too much — in everything he does.

It is too easy to say that Gakpo will be an ideal player for Slot because the pair are Dutch, but the 24-year-old does possess a versatility and skill set that should make him a valuable asset. Based on Slot’s 4-2-3-1 set-up at Feyenoord, Gakpo’s profile suits the No 10, No 9 and wide roles.

It was noticeable that when Nunez came on against Spurs, Gakpo remained as the No 9 and his team-mate went onto the left flank. It proved effective, given the chances Jurgen Klopp’s side were able to create on the break despite Liverpool’s loss of control.

On another afternoon, Nunez could have ended the day with a goal and an assist and perceptions would have shifted again. Instead, the questions are heightened and it feels like the point where Liverpool have to stick or twist with him.

Nunez may not be the elite, consistent striker Liverpool thought they were signing from Benfica. Neither is he anywhere near as bad as some suggest. Had his price tag (an initial £64million) been more in Gakpo’s ballpark (an initial £37million) attitudes would doubtless be softer.

What Nunez does next will reveal plenty. The problem is, with Gakpo’s form, that opportunity may not come until pre-season.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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