Should Liverpool ditch Darwin Nunez? He's loved by fans and can torment opponents on his day, but the struggling forward risks becoming a seismic flop like Paul Pogba

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At Old Trafford they referred to it as ‘unlocking’ Paul Pogba. After winning a continental scrum to complete the big-money signing of the midfielder, Manchester United spent six seasons trying to mine his elite natural talent.

When returning to Manchester from his first stint at Juventus, he was Europe’s most wanted. But like so many before him at that decaying club, he ended up on the scrap heap. He showed off his supreme skills in glimpses, most notably for France, but overall was a seismic flop.

Pogba could have been this generation’s answer to Zinedine Zidane or Steven Gerrard but English football fans were never treated - or put through the trauma - of watching him glide and rip through midfields at ease. He left these shores with a stench of what-might-have-been.

There could be a similar situation for a certain striker at Liverpool. Though a completely different profile of player, will Reds fans ever see the real Darwin Nunez on a consistent basis? On his day, he is an unstoppable force who can torment the best defenders in the world.

But those days can be few and far between. Rival fans have poked fun at him ever since his arrival in England, while even his own so-called supporters have abused him in recent weeks after a sub-par run of form and several high-profile misses.

Liverpool are on a mission to 'unlock' Darwin Nunez's full potential

Liverpool are on a mission to 'unlock' Darwin Nunez's full potential

They want to succeed where Man United failed in doing the same to Paul Pogba

Liverpool are on a mission to 'unlock' Darwin Nunez's full potential - and succeed where Man United failed in doing the same to Paul Pogba (R)

His last goal came on April 4 and that was after Sheffield United goalkeeper Ivo Grbic went to clear the ball away but struck it straight at Nunez’s back-side. It bounced in. His recent scoring rate stands at two in his last 13 games, with him often consigned to a seat on the bench now.

A cameo in the 4-2 win over Tottenham on Sunday was littered with errors and the online insults reached fever pitch, resulting in Nunez removing all Liverpool-related posts from his Instagram account and stormed off the pitch. It fuelled speculation that he wanted out of Anfield.

The sharks of the Spanish media immediately jumped on the story and, within hours, he was being linked to Barcelona. It would be easier for them to report which players the Nou Camp club are not interested in, given the never-ending rumour mill of Catalonia.

But president Joan Laporta is said to be actively trying to offload veteran striker Robert Lewandowski, now 35, which would mean they need a new No 9. Nunez’s agent Jorge Mendes has four clients at Barcelona, plus another out on loan.

On his day, Nunez is an unstoppable force who can torment the best defenders in the world

On his day, Nunez is an unstoppable force who can torment the best defenders in the world

Saying that, the club is significantly in deficit with their La Liga-set wage bill and it seems financially tough to see how they could afford him. The speculation was not helped, though, when Nunez was snapped in Barcelona with their defender Ronald Araujo on Tuesday.

That trip was just a quick break as players were given a few days of annual leave, with Ibrahima Konate also jetting to a French coastal resort and several stars, including Mohamed Salah, heading to London. Diogo Jota was less glamorous with a jaunt to Sheffield to watch snooker.

Barcelona defender Araujo is also a Uruguay team-mate of Nunez and the pair have been good mates having been born three months apart and advanced through the age-group international teams together. Nunez’s partner, Lorena Manas, is also from the Catalan region.

But even though he took a bit of downtime this week, the striker has still been the topic of endless debate back in England, from podcasts to pub patter. So, is it time for Liverpool to wash their hands of Nunez?

But those days can be few and far between, with his last goal coming on April 4

But those days can be few and far between, with his last goal coming on April 4

Liverpool certainly do not think so. The club’s position is believed to be a staunch stance: Nunez is going nowhere. Liverpool see Nunez as key to their plans for the future and sources in Merseyside point to how everyone will start afresh when Jurgen Klopp leaves in a fortnight.

Incoming head coach Arne Slot was hired for many reasons but one of the main selling points was his ability to develop players. One case study would be Argentine striker Santiago Gimenez, who was plucked from the relative obscurity of Mexican side Cruz Azul.

In Gimenez's last full season in Liga MX, he scored eight goals in 42 games. Across 86 matches under Slot’s tutelage at Feyenoord, he has netted 49 times. ‘It was a big step for me to come from Mexico to the Netherlands and Arne gave me confidence,’ said Gimenez on Sunday night.

‘He always pushed me to be better. I am really grateful, I hope he can do it well everywhere. As a person and as a coach, he is complete. He understands when to tell you that you did well, and also when to tell you if you did bad. He can talk really well with the players.’

Nunez scored 15 goals in his first season at Anfield, and has netted 18 in this campaign

Nunez scored 15 goals in his first season at Anfield, and has netted 18 in this campaign

Another example is Bournemouth forward Luis Sinisterra, who worked with Slot at Feyenoord before joining Leeds. ‘Sinisterra did not work out at first here and everyone wanted to give up on him,’ says one source who has known Slot since he was a player at Sparta Rotterdam.

‘I don’t know what he did but all of a sudden he was fulfilling his potential. He went to Leeds for £25million, one of Feyenoord’s biggest sales ever. Before Slot, he could have gone for a nickel and dime! He puts belief in players.’

It would make little financial sense for Liverpool to sell Nunez, who signed in 2022 on a long-term deal that could rise to £85million with add-ons based on appearances and team success. On the same note, cash-strapped Barcelona would do well to afford him.

Given his form, Liverpool would be unlikely to recoup the mega fee they paid for him. And the club value him extremely highly regardless, noting his age - still just 24 - and the lack of elite-level forwards on the European transfer market.

The forward will lose two of his biggest fans this month when Klopp and right-hand man Pep Lijnders depart. Lijnders, who speaks five languages including Spanish, spent a lot of time with Nunez on the training pitches last summer working on finding more calmness in front of goal.

Liverpool still have huge confidence in Nunez, with Jurgen Klopp and his staff working with him extensively to improve his finishing

Liverpool still have huge confidence in Nunez, with Jurgen Klopp and his staff working with him extensively to improve his finishing

He also issued a passionate defence when covering for Klopp at a press briefing earlier this season and said it is ‘unfair’ to judge Nunez solely on his scoring stats. Even when he has not been on hot scoring form, the view inside the club was that Nunez was still contributing highly.

For other outside observers, though, his statistics speak volumes. Since joining Liverpool, he has scored just 13 of 60 Opta-defined ‘big chances’, with a big chance conversion rate of 21.7 per cent. Of players with at least 20 big chances, only Danny Welbeck has been more wasteful.

He has yielded an expected goals (xG) tally of 28.3 in his time in the Premier League but actually scored just 20 times. The only player with a bigger gap between their xG and actual goals in that time is Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

Nunez has an overall shot conversion rate in the league of just 10.5 per cent, meaning he scores roughly one goal for every 10 attempts. To compare, team-mate Diogo Jota has converted 22.4 per cent of his efforts in that time period.

Of course only the goal-scoring stats make headlines but if you delve deeper, his numbers in other aspects have improved somewhat this season. He has 13 assists this term compared to four last season, while he has created more chances and had more touches.

The Uruguayan will likely get a chance of a fresh start when incoming boss Arne Slot arrives

The Uruguayan will likely get a chance of a fresh start when incoming boss Arne Slot arrives

Nunez is adored by match-going fans and his name is often chanted louder than any by the Kop, who are mostly desperate for him to succeed. But even the most hardened Liverpool supporter will acknowledge that all is not well with the striker right now.

Deleting his Liverpool-related Instagram posts caused a storm on social media. It could be nothing but it felt symbolic and it is said Nunez regularly finds himself reading comments about him. When the going gets tough, he will understandably get into a spiral of sadness.

His career has followed a theme of getting over disappointments. Nunez wanted to quit football when, at just 17, his knee buckled and he tore his anterior cruciate ligament playing for Penarol in Montevideo. He struggled with homesickness when leaving Uruguay for Spain and Almeria.

Nunez was also not helped by being instantly put on Premier League billboards alongside fellow new arrival Erling Haaland. The striker’s camp felt that did not help his confidence, especially when the Norwegian scored 52 goals to Nunez’s 15 in their debut seasons in England.

In a pastoral sense, Liverpool offers support to all players who might be subject to online abuse. They have done a lot to help Nunez feel at home in England, such as South American menu choices and sending him on extra language courses.

Nunez is adored by match-going fans and his name is often chanted louder than any by the Kop

Nunez is adored by match-going fans and his name is often chanted louder than any by the Kop

It is a lot more nuanced than a simple message of, ‘Stay off social media’, especially when players’ accounts are a vehicle for commercial growth. On the same token, it is much easier said than done for Nunez to follow their advice of ignoring negative comments.

Midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai has also struggled with online abuse. The Hungary captain told a Budapest-based TV station this week: ‘When you don’t play well, in some people’s eyes, you’re the worst player on the pitch. But it’s not a problem, we get through these things together.’

Team-mates, led by captain Virgil van Dijk, will surely put an arm around Nunez when they return to the Kirkby training base after a tough personal week. The striker’s idol, former Liverpool great and compatriot Luis Suarez, is regularly in touch privately.

Publicly, Suarez told him: ‘Thank you scorer for always being there! Always remember (to be) POSITIVE and looking forward!’ Nunez will spearhead Uruguay’s Copa America campaign this summer ahead of Suarez, now at Inter Miami, who is often left out by boss Marcelo Bielsa.

So while it is probably correct to label this juncture as a mini-crossroads, Nunez could return from the tournament - held outside South America in the United States - full of beans and raring to go having spent a summer with Bielsa. There will be a fresh start feel, too, when Slot arrives.

By then, we will be into season three of unlocking Nunez. Unlike Pogba at Old Trafford, Liverpool can be a habitat of success. His head could of course be turned by Barcelona but for both player and club, they would be foolish to give up on his time at Anfield just yet.

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