It’s been a long time since player was so heavily under a microscope in the manner which Darwin Núñez is at the moment. Some people claim he’s simply not a good player, some people claim he’s good but limited, others think he’s just an incredible player overall. The main factor in all of this? Darwin Núñez has missed some huge chances since joining Liverpool.
Although there are loads of pieces to evaluating a player, today I want to focus exclusively on Darwin Núñez and his shooting, both tactically and technically focused.
‘The forwards need service!’
A statement a lot of fans love to make, and a quip that Darwin Núñez seems to have set his mind upon breaking. Most players don’t have 30 yard shots in their catalogue — they just don’t see any reason to take them. Darwin seems to have one per page of Wyscout clips. The clip below is a great example of these insane shot attempts.
This somewhat silly example of his decision-making in the final 1/3 is really emblematic though of a larger problem with Núñez which is that he has taken a skill (taking shots) and then put it on some kind of steroid. Which is to say he just shoots whenever he feels he has a yard of space. I’m not sure it exactly fits what people mean when they say ‘service’ but Núñez sure is getting shots off one way or another, in fact, more shots than almost anyone else in the top 5 leagues.
I would say that roughly 1/2 of Núñez shots are just straight up poor quality and shouldn’t be taken, data isn’t the focus but I’m sure someone can give a better idea of what the true ratio is. But, I’m not here to say he shouldn’t be shooting, his shot catalogue is actually very similar to Erling Haaland’s, who takes roughly one less shot per match. (Only difference is he doesn’t think he’s Steph Curry shooting from 35+ yards.)
Getting off shots matters, but so does their quality. Núñez is actually excellent at creating shots and getting them off his foot on his own, while this might not result in goals for him specifically, this is an extremely valuable trait. This is similar to the way that Trent’s passing can influence a game, while once and awhile he’ll play passes that are jaw-dropping, the majority of them set the team up nicely for second-balls in dangerous areas. Núñez does the same with his shooting — sometimes putting them on target and occasionally scoring great shots. A coach’s dream for ‘testing the keeper’ in matches.
In large part this is great, taking shots and making decisive actions in the final 1/3 is something teams need, even if those actions don’t result in goals directly. But, simultaneously, Darwin’s overall impact on a match is damaged by taking shooting ‘opportunities’ that simply aren’t shooting opportunities.
This is only one half of Núñez mental/tactical struggles within his finishing. On top of poor shot selection, he struggles to stay composed consistently. During his time with Benfica, this was still a recurring problem. There were moments like the one below, where he showed an understanding of space and time and make a decision based on those two things.
The unfortunate reality though, is that this is very infrequent of an occurrence for Darwin, with rushed shots and poor technique decisions based on pressure being far more common. This, interestingly, has not changed much between his time at Benfica vs. Liverpool. He doesn’t rush more or less, he just generally rushes in his play. It doesn’t seem like he’s ‘struggled to adapt’ or any of the normal explanations for a player struggling in the Premier League, Darwin Núñez just moves too fast for his own good sometimes.
Femur Length, Strength, Speed…
I’m willing to bet you didn’t expect a biomechanical portion of this explanation, but it’s true, Darwin’s size is a massive factor in his ability to put the ball in the back of the net. For a lot of this, I want to use Haaland as an example of how technical skills and biomechanics overlap.
For starters, is the science. I will be including a variety of citaitons and links at the bottom with some random notes on why I used them.
As a relatively tall forward, players like Núñez and Haaland tend to have longer femurs than others, this is just general logic. What is meaningful about this though, is that a longer femur has been long linked to having stronger quads, the muscle largely responsible for ball-striking strength . This is a particularly easy explanation for why players like them are able to hit a ball so hard.
On the other side of their limb length though is their step frequency, which is lower than that of people with shorter limbs [2,3,4]. This inability to move their legs at a quick pace could be evidence that it is at least marginally more difficult for taller players to reach a ball underneath their feet with the same speed as someone smaller. I think most would come to that conclusion without any evidence also.
For me, this raised a massive question of what makes players like Haaland and Núñez such lethal finishers, rather than simply agents of chaos? Between the two of them, there is one massive difference: their dribbling style. While Núñez prefers to keep the ball as close to under control and under his feet as possible, Haaland keeps it ahead of him. This means that when it comes to finishing, Haaland is simply meeting a ball with a single touch, while Núñez is forced into taking a primary prep touch, so that he can hit the ball at his ‘optimal’ location.
The interesting thing about this is that while for Núñez it seems like he should be more controlled because of this, it actually works against him, as his feet struggle to do those two things with his height. A lot of his best goals for Liverpool and Benfica have come from meeting the ball on the pass, or situations where it is ahead of him.
Haaland actually gives us a good example of this, where his body almost tangles over itself attempt to get a shot off in two rapid touches.
These two things intersect to give a scientific evidence of strengths and weaknesses in both their games, but while Haaland has adapted and found a body orientation for shooting that suits his body, Núñez has continued to play as if he is 5'10", rather than 6'2" by trying to take settling touches before shooting. Small things like this have made a major difference in his ability to finish certain chances.
Another interesting piece of this is that both of them are great at taking volleys, which isn’t too surprising considering a ball in the air slightly shortens the time required to make contact with it. A combination of strong contact, strong muscles and shortening the time to shoot can make both of them very lethal in these circumstances.
This evidenced strength is a really huge bonus for Darwin and when coupled with his incredible ability to make consistent contact with a ball, he becomes a really lethal ball-striker. So, how do we calibrate his play into goals rather than shots?
So Núñez takes bad shots, generally lacks composure in the box, and when he does attempt to take a second touch, it doesn’t really suit his body type? What’s left?
First is answering the mental components of his rushed play. This is something that will certainly take time, but keeping him in consistent circumstances, tactically especially, will give him the confidence to handle those situations with a slower speed than he normally would. This would ideally mean that chances in the box turn into goals more often, rather than him seemingly scrambling to make contact rather than making good contact.
Taking a couple of pages from Haaland’s book would likely serve him well also. Despite not being a striker, trying to focus more on taking specific kinds of shots would make a major difference in his output. As previously mentioned, taking one-touch shots when the time allows is the best way to maximize all of the things that he is good at. Many of his best goals were off of a cutback where he placed it into a corner despite being under pressure, and knowing that he was going to take it in one touch helped to reduce the feeling of that pressure.
Similarly, adapting his dribbling style slightly should help maximize these one-touch-like situations where he’s meeting his own dribble ahead of him and can shoot as if he’s meeting a pass.
There is a certain mental element too at play, which is just general confidence in himself as a player. I try to avoid ever suggesting a player is lacking in confidence, but in the event that he is, time and maximizing the outlined circumstances will help to restore self belief.
 Dean RS, DePhillipo NN, Kiely MT, Schwery NA, Monson JK, LaPrade RF. Femur Length is Correlated with Isometric Quadriceps Strength in Post-Operative Patients. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2022 Jun 2;17(4):628–635. doi: 10.26603/001c.35704. PMID: 35693850; PMCID: PMC9159727.
 Tomita, D., Suga, T., Terada, M. et al. A pilot study on a potential relationship between leg bone length and sprint performance in sprinters; are there any event-related differences in 100-m and 400-m sprints?. BMC Res Notes 13, 297 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13104-020-05140-z
 Schubert AG, Kempf J, Heiderscheit BC. Influence of stride frequency and length on running mechanics: a systematic review. Sports Health. 2014 May;6(3):210–7. doi: 10.1177/1941738113508544. PMID: 24790690; PMCID: PMC4000471.
 Ueno H, Nakazawa S, Takeuchi Y, Sugita M. Relationship between Step Characteristics and Race Performance during 5000-m Race. Sports (Basel). 2021 Sep 17;9(9):131. doi: 10.3390/sports9090131. PMID: 34564336; PMCID: PMC8473258.