This summer transfer window, Benfica will face the unenviable task of replacing their prolific goalscorer, Darwin Núñez. Núñez arrived in Lisbon from the Spanish side Almería in 2020 and over the last two seasons, he has developed into one of Europe’s best goalscorers. This summer, he will be one of the most sought-after strikers in Europe — have already drawn the attention of pretty much every club in Europe — but at the time of writing, Chelsea, PSG and Manchester United are the proposed front-runners. This leaves Benfica with a significant hole in their squad, as Núñez is the league’s top scorer with 24 goals in 24 appearances and seven goals in cup competitions. Now, Benfica does have the impressive Brazilian youngster Gonçalo Ramos and Ukrainian forward Roman Yaremchuck, who represent two solid attacking options but if Benfica is going to close the gap to Sporting and Porto, they may need to add to Yaremchuck and Ramos.
This recruitment analysis and data analysis will assess some potential options for how Benfica could replace Núñez this summer.
Benfica’s current situation
At the time of writing, it appears certain that Benfica will finish third, guaranteeing qualification for next year’s UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds, which is a massive factor that helps with attracting players to the club. They are currently under the management of Nélson Veríssimo who took over from Jorge Jesus in December. It looks like Jesus will be replaced by Roger Schmidt the current PSV manager at the end of the season but nothing has been confirmed yet. In addition to Ramos and Yaremchuck, Benfica does have Haris Seferovic but at 30 years of age, he isn’t the answer. Benfica are also a club with a proven track record of selling on young players and over the last few years have sold on Rúben Dias, Ederson, João Félix, Nélson Semedo, and Victor Lindelöf for significant transfer fees; this approach must be considered in this analysis. Núñez fit this buy-to-sell model and finding another player they can sell on will likely be part of what Benfica are searching for this summer.
For this analysis, a sample of players between 18-25 and who have played over 1000 minutes for their club in the last 365 days was used. These players were taken from the following leagues: Argentina’s Primera División, Austrian Bundesliga, Belgian Jupiler Pro League, Brazilian Serie A, Chile’s Primera División, Colombian Primera A, Croatia’s 1. HNL, Czech Republic’s 1. Liga, Denmark’s Superliga, Greek Super League, Eredivisie, Norway’s Eliteserien, Portugal’s Primeira Liga, Russian Premier League, Serbian Super Liga, Sweden’s Allsvenskan, Swiss Super League, Turkish Super Lig, Ukraine’s Premier League and Uruguay’s Primera División. All numbers used in this analysis are from the last 365 days to include the majority of European seasons but also South American and Scandinavian seasons which run differently from the traditional European seasons.
In order to replace Núñez, we must first understand the type of player he is and some of his key attributes. Below shows the percentile ranks of Núñez in goalscoring, chance creation and defensive metrics amongst the previously discussed sample.
His goalscoring and finishing are excellent, leading the sample in goals per 90 and non-penalty goals per 90. He also outperforms his xG better than almost anyone else, as well as having a 90th plus percentile in xG per 90. Núñez’s goalscoring ability is one of the key reasons behind his significant demand. Núñez isn’t just a goalscorer, he also contributes to the wider attacking phases as shown by his successful attacking actions per 90, touches in the box per 90, xA per 90 and assists per 90 rankings. His defensive numbers are not the most impressive, but these are harder to gauge with attackers as they can be influenced by tactics and style.
Núñez is the complete striker, with the ability to hold up the ball, run in behind, link-up play and, most importantly, score goals. Finding someone who is performing to the level Núñez is at currently, is probably beyond Benfica’s financial power. However, finding someone who can develop to the level Núñez is at is a far more achievable task.
Below we will take a look at some of the important metrics to consider and see how the sample performs in these metrics. Also, draw your attention to some interesting names that could be worth considering for Benfica. The first graph shows us xG per 90 and non-penalty goals per 90. The reason non-penalty goals per 90 are used is to remove penalty goals which can artificially inflate a player’s goalscoring ability. xG per 90 also is used to measure the quality of chances a player has in a game (penalties are included as non-penalty xG was unavailable).
The names mentioned are also realistic recruits for Benfica, so we will be avoiding players such as Karim Adeyemi, Arthur Cabral, Julián Álvarez, and Denis Undav who have or most likely will join a side from another of Europe’s top leagues this summer, at a slightly higher level than the Portuguese outfit are playing.
The first interesting name is Tomáš Čvančara of Sparta Prague. At only 21 years old, he has been impressive for the Czech side scoring 0.7 non-penalty goals per 90, he joined Sparta Prague from lesser-known Czech side FK Jablonec this January and has also been impressing in front of goal there.
Another interesting name is Giacomo Vrioni, who is playing for Austrian side Tirol on loan from Juventus. At 23 years old, he is most likely to be surplus to requirements in Turin and considering his goalscoring record in Austria this season, he may be worth considering. Erik Botheim has an xG per 90 of 0.41 and a non-penalty goal per 90 of 0.5, spanning his time with Bodø/Glimt and more recently, Krasnodar. Usually, a player who has recently joined a club would be an unrealistic recruit. However, the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has undoubtedly created a situation that football clubs will be looking to capitalise upon and while there are plenty of far more important issues to discuss with regard to the horrific situation, it is an element that can’t be ignored when conducting this recruitment analysis.
Having barely featured for the Russian club and the likelihood of Russian clubs featuring in future UEFA competitions seeming very unlikely, there may be an opportunity for Benfica to sign a player here. It’s also worth noting that signing any player from Russia or Ukraine comes with a significant amount of uncertainty and complications at this time. Finally, two South American players are worth noting here. The first is 20-year-old Peñarol striker Agustin Álvarez, whose goalscoring record over the last 365 days is impressive. Secondly, 21 -year-old Sebastián Guerrero of Torque City (a City Football Group club) is another Uruguayan with a strong goalscoring performance.
The second metrics we will look at are assists per 90 and expected assists per 90, to indicate which players excel in creating chances for the team. These are two metrics in which Núñez performs well and are important in assessing a striker’s overall attacking contribution.
The first name is USG and Belgium striker Dante Vanzeir, who has been integral in his side’s success this season. The 23-year-old has one of the highest assists per 90 and xA per 90 in the sample. Luring Vanzeir away from USG might be hard due to them being in Europe themselves next year. However, he is worth considering. Also impressing in these metrics is Adam Hložek, now he has been rumoured with some of Europe’s elite like Liverpool and Bayern Munich but whether they pull the trigger on him is yet to be decided. He may need to find a club to prove himself in a stronger league before making the move to the likes of Liverpool, and Benfica would be an excellent fit if that is the case.
Another player in a similar situation to Botheim is Yuri Alberto. After an impressive tenure in Brazil, he joined Zenit St Petersburg in January. Similar to Botheim, there could be a possibility to entice him away from Russia for European football with Benfica. Anastasios Douvikas plays for Dutch side FC Utrecht and has been underperforming his xA per 90 and xG per 90, leading to him garnering less attention than he would if he could perform to his expected numbers. Finally, 24-year-old Colombian Zander Cassiera has recently moved to the Russian side Sochi after an impressive stint in Portugal with Belenenses. At Sochi, he has continued his goalscoring form and could be a good squad addition for Benfica.
The final two metrics we will address are successful attacking actions per 90 and touches in the box per 90, two metrics Núñez was in the 90th + percentile for.
Simon Adingra is the standout performer in these metrics, Adingra plays his football for Nordsjælland in Denmark. Being only 20 years old, his performances and goalscoring record are noteworthy. One of the names who has appeared in the above-average section of all three graphs is Wilfried Gnonto of FC Zurich. Gnonto is only 18 and after being released by Inter Milan, he has been excelling in Switzerland. Ukrainian striker Artem Dovbyk is a player who also performs well in these metrics in addition to the others discussed. However, the war in Ukraine may make the transfer very difficult. Finally, José López, although he is below average in successful attacking actions his touches in the box are high and at 21 years old there is still time for development.
Option 1 – Wilfried Gnonto
From looking at the numbers and scouting Gnonto, it becomes apparent that he is a talented footballer and this current season playing for Zurich has allowed him to develop. His goalscoring is excellent, he has the third-highest overperformance of his xG per 90 and even if he did regress, his xG per 90 is still impressive. Gnonto also contributes to the wider attacking phases as can be seen from below percentile ranks, with him being 90th and above for the majority of attacking metrics and one of the very few players in the sample to whom this applies.
At only 18, Gnonto certainly can develop at Benfica and if he continues his career trajectory, then he would certainly fit into Benfica’s selling-on model.
Option 2 – Tomáš Čvančara
When making my selections for this article, a tradeoff between someone who can score goals at an impressive rate versus someone who has a well-rounded general contribution but struggles for goals had to be made. In my opinion, especially with young players, the ability to score goals comes first. This led to the next selection — Tomáš Čvančara — whose goalscoring has been exceptional in the last year. The other areas of his game do need work — his hold-up can be sloppy and he can be too weak on the ball, but his ability in front of goal is effortless.
Although he has only recently joined Sparta Prague, I believe if he sustains his performance in front of goal, the rest of Europe may soon be interested and Benfica should act while they can.
Option 3 – José López
José López is a 21-year-old Argentinian striker who plays his football for Lanús in Argentina. Last season was his breakout season scoring 13 league goals. His goals per 90 and non-penalty goals per 90 are just short of the 90th percentile and he is outperforming his xG, which may indicate a potential for him to be less prolific in a tougher league like the Primeira Liga. However, he does contribute to the wider attacking play with a well-rounded contribution in terms of touches in the box, smart passes, and progressive passes. He is also a strong defender and his performance in PAdj interceptions and tackles are high.
He demonstrates a similar playing style to Núñez, with a strong ability to hold up the ball but also run in behind and provide a dual-threat for defences. With exposure to a higher level in the Primeira Liga and more games under his belt, he could continue his development for the Portuguese giants.
Option 4 – Agustín Álvarez
The final option for Benfica is Agustín Álvarez, the Uruguayan striker who plays for Peñarol. The 20-year-old has been nothing but impressive since breaking into the Peñarol first team. Now, the all-around attacking metrics for Álvarez don’t stand out but when watching Álvarez, his hold up and link-up ability does stand out, but he does lack consistency. However, as eluded to earlier, scoring goals is something that is much harder to coach and develop than overall attacking play, thus taking more precedent here. Despite Álvarez’s impressive goalscoring performance, he actually underperforms his xG per 90 which creates the opportunity for him to score even more goals if he can begin to be more consistent in front of goal.
Álvarez would very much be a developmental player and would need time to progress and become accustomed to the higher quality of football in the league. However, if he is given this time to develop, he does have the potential to go on and do what Núñez has done this season.
I believe the following suggestions would all make great replacements for Benfica’s Darwin Núñez who looks certain to depart the Portuguese club this summer. Now, none of these players is at the current level of Núñez. However, very few are, but they do have the characteristics to eventually reach the level of Núñez if their development continues on the right track. These were not the only players who could fit this mould but the ones I believe have the best chance plus fit the correct market conditions. Players like Yuri Alberto are certainly interesting too but the current market conditions make a transfer unlikely or very complicated.