Darwin Nunez’s game for Liverpool and Uruguay is benefiting from the Marcelo Bielsa effect


So many players cite Marcelo Bielsa as having had a transformational impact on their career: Gabriel Batistuta, Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone, Alexis Sanchez, Ander Herrera and Kalvin Phillips, to name just a few.

Argentine coach Bielsa’s ability to craft and tweak systems and tactical plans to maximise individual strengths, as well as notice the tiniest details to raise a player’s level, are legendary.

Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez can be added to the above list.

Bielsa took charge of Nunez’s Uruguay in May, replacing Diego Alonso after an underwhelming 2022 World Cup where Uruguay went out after the group stage, managing one win and two goals in games against Portugal, South Korea and Ghana.

His arrival came just after Nunez’s first Premier League season finished with Liverpool. He scored 15 times in all competitions, better than once every two games when accounting for minutes played, but got just six in his 23 appearances post-World Cup. Manchester City’s Erling Haaland, undeservedly, became the yardstick to measure Nunez by, as similar profile No 9s who had both arrived in England from continental Europe before last season started.

As Liverpool spent their 2022-23 tinkering and tweaking their shape and structure, squeezing to a fifth-place finish with a seven-game winning run in the month from the middle of April, Nunez was held up as an embodiment of their issues. He was inconsistent, offering moments of brilliance but also poor decision-making and/or execution.

There was wasteful finishing and questions over where he worked best — off the left as a right-footed inside forward, a replacement (of sorts) for Sadio Mane after his move to Bayern Munich, or through the middle as a No 9. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, and Uruguay’s Alonso, used him in both roles.

Then, along comes Bielsa, at the same time as Klopp rebranded his team “Liverpool 2.0”, and things properly begin to click.

This season, at club level, Nunez is having more shots and expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes, and scoring more frequently (from 159 minutes per goal last season to 125 this campaign, in all competitions). Nunez has played exclusively as a No 9, and while his touches per 90 in the opposition box are unchanged (8.3), the significant thing is the rise of his involvement just outside the penalty area, rather than off the left.

For Uruguay, his improvement is even clearer. Nunez, who made his senior international debut in October 2019, aged 20, scored just three times in his first 16 caps, all of which came before Bielsa. Under Bielsa, he has scored five times in four games, becoming just the third Uruguayan to score in four consecutive World Cup qualifiers (after Ruben Sosa and Luis Suarez).

A win over Brazil and, historically, a victory in Argentina (they had never before won a World Cup qualifier there) have Uruguay just two points behind the world champions at the top of the CONMEBOL 2026 World Cup qualifying table after six of the 18 games.

Nunez tops the scoring chart (with five, two more than second-placed Lionel Messi) and has explained some of Bielsa’s teachings: “(He) showed me some of my matches, he corrected some things I’d done. For example, there’s a play where all of the opposition team are back (where he says), ‘Don’t run in front of the second centre-back, run in behind’. So that the centre-back loses me.”

Nunez movement

Here is an example, against Manchester United at Anfield in March, of the movements Bielsa wants Nunez to change.

He starts in a good position, behind left centre-back Lisandro Martinez, as Liverpool progress down their left and Andy Robertson gets into a crossing position…

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…but Nunez then cuts across Martinez, who sees his run and manages to block the attempted first-time finish.

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And here is an example of the changed movement from September’s 3-0 win against Aston Villa.

Liverpool break through Villa’s high press and release Mohamed Salah down the right. As he dribbles to the box, Nunez is making a run between the last two defenders.

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He then slows, stepping outside Matty Cash and into his blind spot.

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Nunez makes two more smart movements. The first is a decoy run towards the near post, with Cash having to keep checking his shoulder, and this encourages the Villa full-back to move towards the ball, away from the back post. As Alan Shearer says, one run for the defender, one for yourself: Nunez then pivots and hits the back post to attack Salah’s cross.

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His movement here is perfect, the point of contact with the ball is between the posts and inside the six-yard box. He just gets mixed up and tries to score with his head and foot simultaneously — resulting in a shot that goes wide.

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The purpose of blindside runs is to lose a marker (as they are watching the ball, not you), but this separation can be achieved by knowing when to decelerate as well.

Here is the build-up to Nunez’s headed goal in Uruguay’s win against Brazil last month.

Maximiliano Araujo dribbles down the left and Nunez starts a similar run between two defenders.

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Realising that the space is insufficient for a cross along the face of the six-yard box, Nunez slams on the brakes and allows the space to open as the Brazil defenders continue to drop, and he heads the ball in.

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There was similar smart movement and repositioning for his second goal against Bolivia this week — another one-touch finish.

For a player who has consistently underperformed expected finishing rates, there is something to be said that Nunez performs at the level expected if you isolate the one-touch finishes. He is clearly a strong instinctive goalscorer, who perhaps lacks composure in situations when there’s time to think.

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Of Premier League centre-forwards with at least 20 shots this season, Nunez ranks fourth for the highest proportion of one-touch shots (62.8 per cent). That represents a rise of over 10 per cent from his proportion of one-touch league shots last season (51.2 per cent), which only ranked him 30th among Premier League centre forwards with 20-plus shots and 10-plus appearances.

Parallels are natural between Nunez and Patrick Bamford, a centre-forward Bielsa coached in his previous managerial job with Leeds United.

Bamford had only had two double-digit scoring seasons in the top two divisions of English football (out of his seven; 17 and 11, both with Middlesbrough) by the time Bielsa started working with him at Leeds as a 25-year-old. He hit 16 goals, and should have had far more based on underlying numbers, in Leeds’ 2019-20 Championship title-winning season, one which was less suited to penalty-box finishing under pressure, as Leeds consistently faced deep-lying defences.

The next season, Bamford scored 17 times in the Premier League, which earned him an England call-up, as he and Leeds enjoyed higher pressing opponents and space to exploit in transition. Bamford called Bielsa “the first manager who has seen me as an out-and-out No 9” and said “he’s made me a better player”.

Nunez might be saying those same words soon.

(Top photo: Getty Images)





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