Darwin Nunez is a player who has been heavily linked to Manchester United over the last month or so, and coming off a season where he has 30 goal contributions in 28 league games, many see him as a good option going forward. That said, others have heavily criticised him, citing a ‘poor first touch’ as a reason for calling him the Uruguayan Lukaku, and that the club should stay away.
It is unlikely that many United supporters have been watching Benfica much, if at all, this year, so we don’t really know if some of these opinions, positive or negative, have any foundation to them. That’s why in this article, we’ll take a look at Darwin Nunez, analysing his strengths, weaknesses, and how he could fit into an Erik Ten Hag side, as well as the logistics of the transfer itself.
At 22 years-old, Nunez definitely has potential for growth in the future, but is not yet the finished article. An attacking player who has a tendency to drift off to the left, he can offer a dynamic option in the final third. Though the squad is crying out for a someone who plays on the right, as there is already Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford who play off the left, Nunez should be looked at in the same way as Leipzig player Christopher Nkunku (someone who's also been linked to a Manchester move) as someone who can bolster attacking options in multiple positions.
A natural striker, Nunez has scored 26 league goals from an xG of 18.7 this season. Initially, outperforming xG indicates unsustainability, suggesting he may not be able to keep these numbers up. Conversely though, we can see that he is able to make the most of poor quality chances, which are likely to get better when playing with higher quality creators such as Bruno Fernandes or Jadon Sancho.
Nunez then scored a further six in the Champions League, most notably a right-footed finish against Liverpool. This goal was quite representative of his strengths, as curled shots on his right foot seem to be a go-to for the Uruguayan. This supports the discussion that he drifts to the left wing quite often, before inverting onto his right. Though he is not a left winger, this still poses a potential issue for Erik Ten Hag, as Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho are two players that already do this, which could create an imbalance in the side. However, having multiple players that occupy this role could also help Ten Hag, let me explain.
When watching Ajax in recent years, we see attacking players operate quite close together around the edge of the box, constantly making runs into the penalty area to exploit spaces in what is a very fluid system. The overload that comes from Nunez and the left winger, as well as the left back who would stay out wide, creates a passing triangle that can be used to play into the box with short, quick passing, that moves into the box as a unit. As Nunez would be the inherent striker, he would eventually look to move towards the centre, often leaving Sancho in one-versus-one situations on the left side of the six-yard box, a place where he excels. This left-side overload would then drag defenders across, leaving space for the attacking midfielder to exploit within the right side of the area. This plays perfectly into Donny Van De Beek’s hands- a player who consistently operated in this role under Ten Hag at Ajax.
One challenge posed by this compactness would be the players’ technical ability, as three players operating in a very small area can be prone to misplacing passes as they misread runs, in a system where passes need to be pinpoint in order to create chances, and ultimately, goals. This issue would only be fixed over time as a relationship forms between the three, where they learn to read each other's runs and therefore misplace fewer passes. Though this seems easy enough to improve on, Nunez may not start every game, with Cristiano Ronaldo looking to be the main striker next season. This means the left-winger and left back would have to get used to playing with both Ronaldo, who does not drift to the left much, and Nunez, who does.
In a Manchester United side that have lacked creativity over the last year, it is vital that the attacking players finish the chances they receive moving forward. Nunez could be a huge addition in this regard, ranking in the top 1% of strikers in the top 5 leagues for goals per shot, indicating a high level of finishing ability. Another positive of Darwin Nunez is his dribbling. With 1.91 players dribbled past a game, he has enough quality, and is confident enough, to take on and beat his man, which is an important attribute for any attacking player.
A third plus side is Nunez’s crossing. A further sign of his tendency to drift out wide, Nunez is in the 97th percentile for crosses, with 2.49 per game. Though you’d usually expect a striker to be on the end of these instead, Donny Van de Beek again can fill this role, a player who has excellent positional awareness in the final third and can put these chances away.
One drawback on Darwin Nunez is that he can get caught on his heels, especially when receiving passes with his back to goal, where he occasionally gives possession away. This may be covered up by an effective counterpress that then wins the ball back, but it is likely to be highlighted if the team are ineffective in this, which is probable as the side experiences the teething problems that will inevitably come with a new system. If he is to take up the Sebastian Haller role as a supposed target man, this is something he will need to improve on.
On this pressing system, Nunez is only in the 53rd percentile for pressures, however this could be a sign of Benfica’s tactics rather than the player’s weakness. Regardless, he will have to put up better numbers if he is to succeed at Old Trafford.
Though he is valued at around £50 million, it looks like Benfica’s asking price could much higher. This may take into account his contract, which doesn’t expire until 2025. With other clubs reportedly interested, such as Liverpool, United will find it difficult to lure him to Manchester. That said, it has been contrastingly suggested that he is happy with Ten Hag’s project, leaving the deal down to whether or not United are willing to spend this much on someone who may not even start most games.
As with all transfers, we won’t know for sure if Darwin Nunez would be a good signing until it happens. That said, he is definitely a player Erik Ten Hag likes, having impressed against Ajax in the Champions League this season, with a goal that sent Ten Hag’s beloved old side out of the famous European competition. It remains heavily debated whether the transfer is as close as some make it out to be, but it is safe to say many are looking to Darwin Nunez for hope ahead of what will be a very hectic summer transfer window, a transfer window that will be covered every step of the way by our team at UtdActive.com.