Darwin Nunez put on a finishing clinic against Newcastle United.
The new Liverpool number nine had two shots and scored two goals. He turned chances with an Expected Goals (xG) value of roughly 0.43 into shots with an Expected Goals-on-target total of 1.52. This doesn’t mean he’s going to be an elite finisher for the entire season but it does make a mockery of those who were claiming the former Benfica man is a poor finisher.
Last season, he struggled in front of goal and many seemed eager to write him off as a reliable goalscorer. The 24-year-old scored nine Premier League goals despite carving out opportunities with an xG total of 14.37. He also missed 20 big chances in the Premier League – a figure that put him third in the rankings behind Marcus Rashford (22) and Erling Haaland (28).
So, he grossly underperformed his expected numbers while missing big chances galore, despite his limited playing time. It wasn’t the ideal combo. This was seemingly enough for many to decide he wasn’t a reliable enough threat for the Reds.
However, you can’t make such judgements off such small sample sizes. Darwin appeared in a little over 1,700 minutes in the Premier League last season. My personal rule of thumb is you need 3,000 minutes to be able to analyse data and even then it isn’t flawless.
Furthermore, when looking at Darwin’s final season with Benfica, he massively over-performed. He scored 22 non-penalty goals from a non-penalty xG total of 15.2. In his first season in Portugal, he scored six from a non-penalty xG of 10. So, there was an underperformance there.
So what can you take from his time with the Lisbon-based giants? He had one campaign of underperformance and one of over-performance. His finishing was streaky but he was a constant threat whenever he was on the pitch. But what is interesting is that he never appeared in over 2,000 minutes in a single league campaign.
For strikers, finishing is all about repetition. The very best goalscorers in the world miss chances, more often than not the reason they find the back of the net with such regularity is because of volume.
The likes of Harry Kane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Haaland and even Salah all average an absurd amount of chances on a per 90 basis. Most of them play full 90-minute matches when fit too, so they’re getting opportunities to right their wrongs – they’re getting chances to miss two of three chances before they finally convert. They’re able to build up a rhythm. Even then, they can underperform. Salah, for example, has underperformed his xG in three of the last four seasons in the Premier League. If you focus on non-penalty xG totals only, he’s underperformed in four of the past five campaigns. He also missed as many big chances (20) as Darwin last season.
Salah has credit in the bank but the only reason this isn’t as much of an issue as it could potentially be is that he’s usually given 3,200 minutes in the English top-flight in to make up for the misses.
It isn’t quite as simple as shoot enough and you’ll eventually score, there’s more to it than that, but the sheer amount of efforts he takes does come into it. He has a non-penalty xG of roughly 20 in all of his campaigns with Liverpool. He’s also averaged close to four shots on a per 90 basis while also averaging over 3,000 minutes.
If you halved his minutes but expected him to hit similar levels, you’d be disappointed. His output, like many others, is built on volume and time on the pitch. If the latter isn’t at the level it needs to be, the output will look patchy and a player’s finishing ability will be in the spotlight.
This is what has happened with the Uruguay international. Over the past three seasons, Darwin hasn’t really had that opportunity and that could explain why, as a volume shooter, he’s as erratic as he is.
Another thing to consider when assessing his debut season on Merseyside was how often he was shifted around the pitch with Jurgen Klopp changing shape quite frequently. At times he was in a two-man attack, then he was in the centre of a three and then he was used as a left-winger. It is difficult to build up momentum and confidence with such upheaval.
All in all, it was a little premature to decide that Darwin wasn’t cut out to be a ruthless centre-forward for a team with title aspirations.
In truth, looking at finishing alone is futile. It can be fickle. You can do everything right only to be thwarted by a world-class save. That can happen a number of times throughout the season and this impacts your numbers. You could be hitting the corners like an elite finisher and still not converting opportunities.
There’s a variance when it comes to goalscoring.
The real skill is being in the right place at the right time on a repeatable basis.
Bobby Gardiner wrote about this in 2018 when analysing Raheem Sterling. Considered by many to be an unreliable finisher, Sterling somehow managed to score 55 Premier League goals over a three-campaign period.
As Bobby says in his piece for The Ringer: “Finishing matters, but the ability to bend a ball into the upper corner pales in comparison with the ability to get in position to take the shot.”
Chance-getters are the real find in football for a top team. What use is an elite finisher if they’re never in optimal shooting positions?
Darwin has shown time and time again that he can get into high-value areas. He’ll miss chances but all attackers do. But then when he’s in the zone, like he was against Newcastle, he can take ok opportunities and turn them into goals with a devastating finish.
If Darwin is given more time on the pitch, he’s going to score more goals. It is that simple. When it happens, the narrative will change and people will start saying he’s a good finisher. In reality, he’s just one of the best at getting chances.