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From Ronaldo comparisons to lockdown regime — how Darwin Núñez became a £64m Liverpool player

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In November 2019, Darwin Núñez was only just getting to grips with life in Europe when his new Almería coach, Real Madrid legend, Guti, pulled him aside for a chat at the club’s training ground.

“I remember the coach [Guti] said to him you remind me of when I was playing with Ronaldo Nazário. I’d take the ball, put it deep and I knew Ronaldo was there to run deep because he would beat everyone to those kind of balls. Darwin was the same,” Javier Agenjo Duran, Almería’s fitness coach at the time, recalls to Liverpool.com.

That was some comparison for a young forward who had not yet hit the ground running in his first venture at European football. During the first few months, Núñez struggled at Almería and faced an uphill battle to fight himself into the starting XI.

But the arrival of Guti and his new coaching staff, including Duran and David Badia, changed all of that. Within just a month of their arrival, Núñez was not just exhibiting Ronaldo-esque moves on the training ground, but on the pitch too.

“I mean, I cannot say he is exactly the same player because, for me, Ronaldo Nazário is one of the best strikers in the world of all time, but there are similarities. Of course, to become like Ronaldo, he still needs to show even more,” Duran says.

Before his move to Almería, Núñez’s career could have taken a completely different path. He was scouted by Uruguayan giants, Club Atlético Peñarol, at 14 but decided to stay with his family in his hometown of Artigas before taking up the club’s offer a year later and moving 700km away from his family home — all the way to the other side of Uruguay in Montevideo.

Gonzalo de los Santos was the club’s sporting director during Núñez’s formative years at Peñarol, and he looks back at his former protégé with a great sense of pride when speaking to Liverpool.com.

“My first contact with Darwin Nuñez was in 2017 when I was the sporting director of Peñarol,” De Los Santos explains.

“At first when I met him, his physical appearance already stood out. During his time in the academy, he was a footballer, adored by his teammates and with incredible talent. We said that in a short time he should be with us in the first team.”

An untimely anterior cruciate ligament injury curtailed that with Núñez suffering the blow in an academy game before his 18th birthday. He would have to undergo surgery to correct the problem and was subsequently ruled out for several months.

But despite the ordeal, Núñez came back strong and in the end, he made his debut at senior level in November 2017, replacing former Liverpool winger, Maxi Rodríguez, against Club Atlético River Plate.

His next appearance would be impeded by his ACL flaring up and his recovery being prolonged by another surgery, but despite the setbacks, Núñez was never fazed by the challenge of coming back.

“His attitude was always exceptional. He was always positive, a true leader and he always wanted to train more to improve. I have to say his mental level was always top. In the classic matches of Uruguay, he always stood out for his conviction and desire to improve himself,” De Los Santos explains.

Núñez’s setbacks were eased by the support of his family around him. His older brother gave-up football to support Darwin’s career, and family has always been an important bond for the young Uruguayan forward.

“His family is his support. He always remembers the work and sacrifice that his parents did. His brother was also a great player, but perhaps not of Darwin’s physical potential. His hometown is the farthest from Montevideo. They are 700 km away and he went to see them whenever he could.”

In the end, Núñez bounced back from his injury blows and during the course of 2018, he established himself in Peñarol’s first team, scoring his first senior goal and regularly coming off the bench to make an impact. The club’s philosophy and track record of developing young talent helped Núñez flourish, according to De Los Santos.

“Peñarol has always been a good place to develop young players. We taught players to grow not just when it comes to football but also on a personal level. From the players we have produced, you can see it is a giant and great club in South America and the world.”

Núñez is just one name among an impressive list in the club’s production line, including Federico Valverde, who have all gone on to achieve greater things since leaving the Uruguayan outfit. For Núñez, it was only a matter of time until he followed suit and, after an impressive showing in the 2019 U20 World Cup in Poland, the then 20-year-old forward would finally get his big move to Europe just three years after his first ACL setback.

His rise since leaving the club has not surprised De Los Santos.

“I always saw Darwin as a potential world-class player. I knew that his career in Europe would be very good and very fast,” De Los Santos concludes.

The first step

Moving to Almería was not just an exciting challenge for Núñez, it was also a relief in the sense that he could finally bring his family out of poverty and repay the faith they had placed in his career. One of the first things Núñez did after his move to Spain was to buy his mother a house in Uruguay.

On the pitch, the challenge of moving to a new environment was eased by the fact that he could speak the language and make himself understood among a team made up of largely South American and Spanish players.

“Almería is a really quiet city. It’s not a big city in Spain, the population is quite small,” the club’s assistant manager at the time, David Badia, tells Liverpool.com. “His character is very quiet, and he adapted very well. I think for him because the language is the same, it was easy to adapt.”

Despite the lavish move to Europe, Badia remembers that Núñez always remained humble on and off the pitch and was never materialistic about his spending.

“Me and my wife were in a shop once. He was buying a phone, but it was just a normal one, not the top, most expensive one he could find. I asked why he wasn’t buying a better phone. He said, ‘This is enough.’ In the end we were in the same position — he was buying for his mother, I was buying for my wife, but the model of the phone was different and his was more humble.”

On the pitch, Núñez’s positional rivals were enjoying a prolific spell in front of goals, and initially, he had to bide his time on the bench at Almería. But towards the end of the year, with the new coaching staff’s help and Guti’s arrival, Núñez exploded.

In his last 12 games before COVID-19 disrupted the Spanish footballing calendar, Núñez had scored 10 times, as opposed to just two goals in his previous eight matches.

COVID-19 came at the worst time for Núñez, putting a halt on his most prolific form to date at senior level. But while the rest of Spain were embroiled under harsh lockdown measures, Núñez used the three-month disruption to travel back home to Uruguay and continue working on improving his game.

“He moved to Uruguay during Covid time, and he worked there training on the pitch he bought by his house. He even got a personal trainer to keep himself fit during the period,” the club’s fitness coach, Duran explains.

“In that moment, that was good for him because most of us in Spain could not leave our houses and most of our other players were just running on treadmills and so on. So I think training on football pitches then helped him to improve.”

After coming back from lockdown Almería struggled for form, winning just four of their last 10 matches but Núñez still made five goal contributions to finish the season with 16 goals and two assists in 30 appearances — an output enough to convince Benfica to make him the most expensive transfer in the Portugal league’s history.

Mentality and work ethic

The rest is well documented. Núñez established himself within two seasons at Benfica as one of the best young forwards in the world and leaves the club having scored 47 goals and registered 16 assists in 84 games.

David Badia credits the 22-year-old’s rise to Núñez’s work ethic and mentality to improve.

“He is a very friendly, and very positive guy. He’s open to listen, he’s open to work and the coaches love players like that. Ones that you know are listening when you are speaking and they are not thinking that they know everything,” Badia explains.

Coming to Liverpool will be a new challenge for the Uruguayan. He will not only have to adapt to a new environment and a new language, but also to a high-intensity playing style under Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpress system at Liverpool.

The latter should be no problem, though. Since his early days at Peñarol, Núñez has stood out for his voracious appetite for the ball and willingness to hunt the opposition down.

“His most outstanding qualities were his athletic physique, winning mentality, exceptional ability in the air and, of course, he is a natural goalscorer. But one thing that stood out to me the most was that he always lent a hand in defensive transitions and chased back to help his teammates out,” Gonzalo de los Santos explains.

His former fitness coach, Javier Agenjo Duran, agrees.

“Physically, of course, he is ready. Obviously, it’s a big step ahead in his career, and he will know that he will have to work hard and run, but I think of course he is prepared for that.”

At just 23 years of age, Núñez still has the world at his feet, and should he succeed, he could be Liverpool’s number nine for the next decade to come.

There will be big expectations heaped on his shoulders because of the hefty fee Liverpool paid for his services, but he had faced the same situation at Benfica and with his hunger to improve and confidence in himself, Badia believes he can go far.

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“He’s such a personality that he believes in himself. Because it’s true, you know, it’s easy for him to believe in himself when you are as good as him. With the quality of his teammates [at Liverpool] it is going to be much more easy for him to find positions to score than before.

“At the same time, he is also a player that is always trying to improve himself. At Almería, he was asking what is the best way to do something better in training every day, and then, of course, when he was missing in some actions in the training, he didn’t like it, and he tried to improve, and he tried to be better every day.”

I think this is the reason that he became so, so good and why he has a huge potential.”

That desire, Badia believes, will make him a success at Liverpool, too.

“He is really clever. He’s really young, and he has a big motivation, and big hunger to improve on the pitch. I’m sure that he will not lose this opportunity, and he’s going to show the enormous potential that he has.”

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