When Benfica’s Champions League run came to an end as they fell to Liverpool 4-6 on aggregate back in April it was crystal clear that Darwin Nunez was a special player after he had shone in both legs for the Eagles. By the end of a sensational season the 22-year old Uruguayan striker had scored 32 goals in just 40 appearances for the Portuguese side and is unsurprisingly attracting attention from Europe’s top clubs.
Under both Jorge Jesus and Nélson Veríssimo, Nunez has played in a range of positions and systems. He’s played as a striker in both a 4-4-2 and 3-4-3, while also playing as a left inside-forward in the 3-4-3 and 4-3-3. His responsibilities in these roles often vary depending on whether Benfica are playing in Europe or in Portugal, as Benfica adopt a counter-attacking approach in the former and are more dominant in the Liga Nos. Nunez’s capacity to thrive in this range of positions and tactical scenarios illustrates the breadth of his skillset and the scope of his talent.
Nunez’s prime asset is his movement. Irrespective of his starting position, his ability to drift into the box and create space is the key to his impressive goal-scoring. This is aided by the presence of Haris Seferovic upfront, a dilligent striker whose work rate enables Nunez to vacate his wide position to take up more dangerous areas in the middle.
While he is an aerial presence at 6’2” and is capable of fronting up against defenders with his physicality, he opts to rely on intelligent positioning and timing of runs in between defenders. He is excellent at attacking the space between a fullback and center-back at the backpost, often initially curving his run away from the center back before moving back infield. The sharpness and frequency of his runs is also a hassle for opponents. It’s not rare to see Nunez make multiple runs before the ball has even been delivered.
The Uruguyan is also extremely intelligent in the way he creates separation from defenders in the box. He’ll often make subtle adjustments of his footwork to find space in the box. He’s also smart about how he uses his body in the box, extending out an arm deftly enough to avoid a foul yet forcefully enough to arrive at a cross ahead of his marker. He displays the canniness of a seasoned striker at just twenty-two years of age.
For a center-forward, Nunez is also well-rounded in his game. He’s not especially creative with his passing, nor is he the sort of striker comfortable dropping deeper to link play. Yet his strength, acceleration, and technical prowess enable him to operate effectively across the forward line. He lacks obvious grace or guile when carrying the ball or exchanging passes with teammates, but his technique is clean and effective. He also tends to maintain an upward body posture, which can help him shield the ball from smaller defenders with greater ease.
In the Champions League, these aspects of Nunez’s game have truly shone. As displayed by his opening goal against Benfica’s 3-0 victory over Barcelona in the group stage, he is a lethal threat in transition. His long strides enable him to cover large swaths of space in a short amount of time, while his upright running style can make it easier to retain possession against smaller defenders. In general, he relies more on power and speed when carrying the ball rather than deft skill to evade defenders. Counter-attacking is when his style of dribbling becomes most effective.
Throughout Nunez’s game, relentlessness is a undeniable hallmark of his style. Both in and out of possession, he has a constant energy and tenacity in his actions that make him a constant issue for opponents. Such intangible qualities are not truly coachable, making him an even more valuable player.
Nunez has been linked with a host of clubs across Europe, including Manchester United and Arsenal. Given his versatility and range of traits, his game should be able to translate well to most teams. He’ll thrive best as an orthodox, and cannot be expected to play much of a role in build-up. His hold-up play will need to improve, and given that so much of his game is predicated on spatial awareness and timing of runs, he may have an adjustment period to a faster league such as the Premier League.
Yet there’s everything to suggest that Darwin Nunez has among the highest ceilings of any striker in his generation. He’s an exhilirating talent who would be a welcome asset to virtually any team in Europe.