Since the first day in which Darwin Núñez set foot on English shores, he has been a threatening weapon for Liverpool to use, and a nightmare for opposition defenses. The Uruguayan striker is rapid, intense and physical, and he is a magnet for chances, having attracted a countless number of opportunities to score over the past 12 months.
Núñez arrived for a potential transfer fee of $106m (£86m/€100m) with Jürgen Klopp willing to spend the large majority of his summer budget on the South American striker in 2022. He would change the way in which Liverpool attacked in the final third, but upon inspection of his output, he seemed to be worth the investment.
Indeed, Manchester United legend Gary Neville recently described him as a 'handful' in his podcast, also stating that he would choose to play against Núñez last if he had the choice of facing him, Diogo Jota or Cody Gakpo as a defender. Nobody would question how menacing the 24-year-old can be at the business end of the field, but there is a reason he didn't start many games last season.
Overall, despite what he offered in an offensive sense, Núñez had to improve his presence on the defensive side of the game, as he contributed to Liverpool suddenly getting cut open on a regular basis last term, with Klopp's aging midfield department — which was revitalized this summer — also to blame.
He was labeled a 'racehorse' by his boss after his team's clash with Fulham earlier this year, and not in a good way. "Defending the center against Fulham is really important because João Palhinha is there and he is a connector, but [Núñez] was like a racehorse," said Klopp. "Go, go, go for everybody. We opened up and that is why we struggled slightly. Apart from that, he played a really good game."
His words offered an insight into what the Uruguayan international had to work on, with his competition for the number nine spot Gakpo praised for his defensive efforts. "He is a super footballer and a smart person," said Klopp (via the Mirror). "I never for a second thought that he was only 24. He eats football, each information we give him is so natural for him to put it on the pitch."
He later sent an indirect message to Núñez using the media, stating: "Counter-pressing is your ticket into this team."Darwin Núñez has improved on his defensive work for Liverpool (Image: Getty Images)
The chaotic striker is still getting to grips with life in England, but based on his early showings so far this term, it is reasonable to suggest that his defensive game is finally starting to catch up with what he offers in attack. He started against West Ham over the weekend and managed to find the net in an impressive 3-1 win.
After the contest, Klopp was eager to praise his work against the ball rather than focusing solely on his goal, stating (via Liverpool's official website): "Massive steps in the last few weeks. He is a threat. You all saw the goal, it was pretty good. He was always available for us. The defensive work he puts in now, that’s probably the main difference. He always wanted, but it was less coordinated. Now that looks much better and we found a way how we can do it around him. Really good, absolutely."
Throughout the course of the contest against the Hammers, Núñez showcased real industry without possession but, crucially, he closed down his opponents in a careful manner, making sure that he blocked passing lanes in the process while also curving his defensive runs to entice his opponents into making predictable passes in certain directions.
He looks stronger, smarter and more aligned with his teammates, while also being as dangerous as ever when Liverpool is attacking. It is still early days but so far this season, he is averaging a goal or an assist every 52 minutes, and he seems to have finally bought the ticket that Klopp referenced as he searched for a way into the team.
Whisper it, but after a full year of development, Liverpool's secret weapon now looks ready to be unleashed.
UEFA have been accused of giving “completely untrue” evidence to the inquiry on the 2022 Champions League final, to protect senior figures.
After the near-fatal chaos of the 2022 Champions League final in Paris, UEFA set up an independent inquiry into the events at the Stade de France.
In a report by David Conn of the Guardian, UEFA have now been accused of presenting “completely untrue” evidence to the inquiry by their then operations director, Sharon Burkhalter-Lau.
The panel deemed the dangerous problems the fault of the events division, but Burkhalter-Lau thinks the blame lies elsewhere.
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The events management specialist said she could not accept that her events division held primary responsibility for the chaos, instead blaming the French police.
She also rejected the accusations against her team, in memos sent to UEFA officials including Theodore Theodoridis.
“The claim that Uefa Events … senior management marginalised the Uefa security unit is based on statements provided by Uefa that were untrue and concerted,” Burkhalter-Lau wrote.
In January, she also wrote: “Following the Paris final, we discussed that we must protect the security unit from the fallout.”
She added that UEFA’s evidence that head of security Zeljko Pavlica’s unit had been sidelined was “untrue.
“I understand now that there has been an agreed strategy to protect the security unit by stating that all safety and security matters would be communicated via project management, which places the blame for any perceived errors or omissions on Tiziano’s team,” she wrote in her memo.
This was was referencing Tiziano Gaier, a UEFA official in Burkhalter-Lau’s division responsible for the final operations.
This shielding of Pavlica, who spent the evening in the VIP area and missed vital planning meetings, again calls into question the integrity of the organisation and its president, Aleksander Ceferin.
This is especially the case given Ceferin was Pavlica’s best man at his wedding and the security official was appointed to his position with no recruitment process to go through.
High-ranking figures at UEFA say they have changed and learnt from their failings. However, these accusations indicate there is still a culture of cronyism and a push to shift blame onto others.
Responding to the Guardian, UEFA said: “The group, and Uefa more broadly, had numerous discussions about the events in Paris, some of which reflected the different views internally on the events and actions of that night.
“Some of those differences were also reflected in the evidence given by various Uefa directors to the panel, evidence that was given in good faith and to the best of the individuals’ knowledge and recollection.”
You can read the full report from David Conn, in the Guardian, here.
Welcome to The Briefing, where every Monday this season The Athletic will discuss three of the biggest questions to arise from the weekend’s football.
This time around, Manchester United won but didn’t convince many people they have fixed their problems, Manchester City looked like they were going to steamroll Nottingham Forest but were eventually made to sweat a little, and Luton Town collected their first point of the season.
We will ask what sort of shape the chasing pack are in, just how bad will things get for Chelsea this season, and whether sacking Paul Heckingbottom would make any difference for Sheffield United…What did this weekend tell us about the chasing pack?
The thing that was most striking about the north London derby was how similar the two teams were.
Both looked incisive and thrilling in attack. Both had moments of defensive vulnerability. Both dealt with adversity, in their own way. And both showed that, after key men went off — Declan Rice for Arsenal; James Maddison and Son Heung-min for Spurs — their teams ultimately can be quite brittle.
But it was also striking how close they looked in terms of quality levels. Arsenal will (justifiably) argue they have a season or so of good form behind them, whereas Spurs have only six games. But on this evidence, it would be pretty tough to confidently say who is going to be better for the remainder of the season.
It’s a testament to just how quickly Ange Postecoglou has made sense of this very new and young set of players. The sample size is small but this game perhaps provided evidence that their hopeful start to the season isn’t just about good vibes and stirring oratory.
Maddison suggested as such, after the game: “Neutrals talk about Tottenham, they often say: soft, weak, bottle it, Spursy, all that rubbish. The last couple of weeks show we might be going in a slightly different direction.”
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This is not necessarily to suggest Arsenal are weaker than they were last season, when they pushed Manchester City until the last few weeks of the campaign. They had some key players out injured and are still trying to incorporate the new additions and new ideas that Mikel Arteta has brought in.Son and Maddison impressed — but Spurs coped when they went off too (Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)
Will they push City again? The season so far, and this weekend specifically, has suggested what we already knew: City are the heavy favourites to win the league again, but if anyone is going to push them then it won’t just be Arsenal this time.
Take Liverpool: their defeat of West Ham was their fifth league win in a row, the only points they have dropped this season coming in that slightly odd game against Chelsea on the opening weekend. They have managed to replace their entire midfield more effectively and efficiently than most could realistically have hoped. Their strikers are scoring. The defence remains a bit of a concern, but it is worth pointing out that only City have conceded fewer goals.
And then there’s Brighton and Aston Villa. Nobody legitimately expects either to seriously trouble City, but their victories this weekend showed, in different ways, why they are at least genuine contenders for the top four.How bad is it going to get for Chelsea?
What words of comfort could you offer the Chelsea fan in your life?
The most convincing version of this you could offer, before their defeat to Aston Villa, was that they had actually been playing quite well — or at least better than their results suggested. And even after the Villa game, you could just about continue that thread. Sure, they’re not winning games, but they’re creating chances and thus, in theory, the wins will come.
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The trouble is, there are only so many times you can say that before it starts becoming pretty hollow. Because this isn’t just a momentary loss of form: Chelsea haven’t been good for about 18 months now. They have collected 49 points from 44 games since the start of last season, and just 25 in 2023.
In the league table of this calendar year, they would be fifth from bottom, above only Everton on goal difference, and last season’s three relegated teams plus this season’s three promoted teams.
It’s not great.
We all know the caveats. It’s basically a brand new team, with the only starters from the Villa game that were around this time last year being Conor Gallagher, Raheem Sterling and Thiago Silva. All of the new players are very young, making the task of integrating them all even more difficult. There’s a new manager, who will need time to settle in himself.
“We are not the Chelsea that won the Champions League or Premier League,” said Mauricio Pochettino before the game. ”We need to accept that it’s a project. An idea, but that we are going to build something for the future with time.”
Which is all very well, and you wouldn’t expect Pochettino to say anything different, but the question is: how bad is this going to get? And how bad will Chelsea allow it to get before they do something about it?
We’ve all been working on the assumption that it’s going to come together at some point, that this disparate collection of talents, assembled for an astonishing amount of money, will click sooner or later. But what if they don’t? Should we accept that, for this season at least, Chelsea are just bad?Would sacking Paul Heckingbottom make any difference?
It was difficult not to laugh when, with the score at 7-0 to Newcastle, Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom brought Chris Basham on in place of James McAtee. Shore it up, keep things tight, let’s win the last 15 minutes lads, what we have we hold.
In fairness, they only conceded one more goal after that, so maybe it worked.
It does feel quite churlish to focus on the losing team when a Premier League side has just scored eight times in a single game. Particularly when those eight goals came from eight different scorers, the first time that has ever happened in the Premier League era, and the first time it has happened in the top flight since Liverpool beat Crystal Palace 9-0 in 1989.
Newcastle were incredibly impressive and showed a ruthless streak by pressing on even when the game was already comprehensively won. And all of this after their first Champions League game in 20 years, in Milan on Tuesday night. It was a bit of a shame they didn’t push for double figures, given that hasn’t happened in England’s top division since 1963, but you can’t have everything.This was the heaviest league defeat in Sheffield United’s history (Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)
But this is shaping up to be a heroically bad intake of teams in the Premier League. The promoted trio have managed three points between them from a combined 16 games, Luton picking up their first at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday. Members of Derby County’s 2007-08 team, holders of the record low points total with 11, might be sitting up and taking notice, wondering: is this the year?
Sheffield United might be the worst of the three. Burnley play decent enough football and have a few genuinely exciting performers, and while Luton’s squad is basically a collection of Championship players, their style of play will also cause a few problems.
Admittedly, Sheffield United did push Manchester City and Tottenham pretty hard and without some late goals, it would all look quite different. But you can’t escape a defeat like this.
There was talk last week that Heckingbottom was on thin ice, with former manager and club hero Chris Wilder ready to return and take his place. The likelihood of that happening has surely increased after such a humiliation, but you have to ask: would it make a difference?
Heckingbottom is far from a perfect manager, but even if the perfect manager existed, they would have to do quite a job to make a competitive Premier League team from the resources available. It was impossible not to sympathise with him earlier in the season when he was bemoaning Sheffield United’s transfer activity; it is far from ideal when your club sells your two best players and does not replace them until after the season starts — and even then, only with players from the Championship.
Teams have recovered from similarly bad starts before and stayed up. Maybe Wilder (or someone else — Neil Warnock is available…) can discover some of that old magic from a few years back. But it would take one of life’s great optimists to think that it could happen with this Sheffield United team.Coming up
(Top photo: Getty Images)