Darwin Nunez’s long-term position at Anfield is being called into question by Cody Gakpo’s impressive form for Liverpool
As Manchester City goal machine Erling Haaland wheeled away in joy after scoring in Wednesday night’s Premier League title showdown with Arsenal, Darwin Nunez was relegated to a bit-part role as Liverpool ground out a hard-fought 2-1 win at the London Stadium, 200 miles south of the Etihad Stadium.
Although far from easy, victory over West Ham United extended the Reds’ unbeaten run in the Premier League to five games, as they built on consecutive victories over Leeds United and Nottingham Forest with a tenacious performance in the capital.
The Premier League’s most recent set of midweek fixtures will live long in the memory for Haaland, who shattered Mohamed Salah’s record for the number of goals in a 38-game season by firing his 33rd effort of a remarkable debut campaign on English shores with a last-gasp strike against the Gunners to put the gloss on a ruthless 4-1 thrashing.
Nunez, on the other hand, cannot say the same for his midweek efforts after being named to Jurgen Klopp’s bench for the fourth Premier League game in a row. Diogo Jota was preferred over the Uruguayan after scoring four goals in recent victories at Elland Road and Anfield, and he continued his partnership with Cody Gakpo and Mohamed Salah.
Despite missing two golden chances in the first half at the London Stadium, shortly after Gakpo had drawn Liverpool level, the Portugal international put in a typical performance, winning 75% of his tackles and harassing a right flank of Jarrod Bowen and Vladimir Coufal before being replaced by Luis Diaz just before the hour mark.
The most telling moment at the London Stadium occurred when Reds manager Klopp considered his first roll of the dice with the game tied at 1-1 and ultimately decided to go with Diaz and Thiago Alcantara. Nunez would have to wait another 20 minutes for his most recent cameo.
Of course, competition for a spot in Liverpool’s three-man attack has increased in recent weeks, with Diaz returning from a long-term knee injury that has kept him out for nearly six months, and which he sustained during the 3-2 loss at Arsenal in October.
Meanwhile, Gakpo’s emergence as the ideal heir to Roberto Firmino’s long-held Anfield throne has limited Nunez’s minutes exclusively to the left side since the turn of the year, with the 23-year-old now locked in a three-way battle with teammates Diaz and Jota for just one starting berth.
Gakpo’s ascension up the Anfield pecking order follows a rocky start to life on Merseyside in the days and weeks following his £37 million January move from PSV Eindhoven. But, four months later, the Dutchman hasn’t looked back since scoring his first Premier League goal in February’s Merseyside derby victory, and his goal against the Hammers brought his tally for the Reds to six, with only Salah scoring more (9) during that time.
The former Eindhoven captain has most impressed with how easily he has adjusted to life as Liverpool’s latest false nine innovation. Since January, he has taken Firmino’s position as the final chapters of his trophy-laden, eight-year Anfield stay are written ahead of an emotional summer exit.
Nunez, on the other hand, begs the question of where he fits into Klopp’s second, great Liverpool dynasty, with the forward’s arrival last June in a £64m deal from Benfica appearing to signal a shift to a more conventional approach led by an out-and-out forward as the German manager developed a blueprint for life without the charismatic Brazilian.
Because, unlike Manchester City, who have thrived since implementing a similar change, and the 49 goals Haaland has since banked in all competitions, the Reds now intend to stick with Gakpo as the focal point of their attack from now on.
Klopp has already alluded to the teething problems that have kept Nunez on the bench since the stalemate with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge at the beginning of April, with Nunez’s off-the-ball efforts not yet at the level required when the side is out of possession and looking to force turnovers with their trademark, aggressive gegenpress.
His adjustment to life at Anfield has also been hampered by his inability to communicate in English, which Klopp mentioned when providing instructions in-game.
Of course, with 15 goals in 24 starts across all competitions for Liverpool this season, it would be unfair to point out the difficulties of what has been a season of transition for both Liverpool and Nunez. In fact, such a return, which is more than Sadio Mane and Firmino managed in their first seasons on Merseyside, only emphasizes the Uruguay international’s enormous potential, which Kopites will hope to see over the course of a successful career at Anfield.
While the Reds will be able to enjoy their late-season revival as they look to sneak into the Champions League, beginning with Sunday’s home game against Tottenham Hotspur, Klopp knows he must devise a long-term strategy to get the most out of Nunez as his team aims to return to the upper echelons of both the English and European game next season.