Darwin Núñez is a 22 year-old centre-forward currently playing for Benfica in the Portuguese Primeira Liga. It was an astute purchase from Benfica, spending the equivalent of £21.6 million in the summer of 2020, doubling what Almeria had paid Penarol for his signature only a year earlier. If Núñez were to be bought today it would take at least double Benfica’s fee to prize him away. We may find out sooner or later with him heavily linked with a move to the Premier League as both Manchester City and Newcastle United are reportedly interested, but Real Madrid are also rumoured to be circling too.
In his first season with Benfica, Núñez notched 14 goals and 12 assists in all competitions – a quality return already on that price tag. And yet this season he has already pushed on with 14 goals already, albeit at the expense of being less creative for others. Núñez only has two assists so far. Nevertheless, this is the sort of output that is likely to encourage teams in the upper echelons of Europe’s top five leagues to seek his signature, and 2022 could well be a year where Núñez breaks into the football mainstream. It should be noted that Núñez is also now a fully-fledged international footballer, having represented his native Uruguay on six occasions, scoring twice.This tactical analysis and scout report provides an in-depth analysis of Núñez’s tendencies, whilst also assessing how he fits in with Benfica’s tactics.
Role in team-play
Núñez is an effective target-man but doesn’t restrict himself to remaining in the central channel. Whilst he can play in this space, working the centre-backs, and deals well with long balls played forward, Núñez looks to explore wider spaces. In doing so he can find space to receive where he can provide a line-breaking pass option, but he can also draw the opposition defenders well out of position as he does this.
Núñez is able to play quick touches away from defenders and can comfortably play one touch passes, however, he also shows an ability to hold up possession. He backs in to defenders effectively and uses his full frame to protect the ball when doing this.
He mixes up his approach by also seeking to roll a defender if they get too tight to him. He doesn’t do this with an overly high frequency but certainly enough to make defenders think twice about getting this tight to him.
In the following image we can see an example of him rolling a defender in an attacking position who gets too close with little cover in behind him.
Núñez has the ability to create enough space to turn in tight areas, even well inside the area. He rolls defenders easily using the frame to get across them and allow the ball to roll past him, shielding the ball as he turns. He scans with frequency and his awareness of space for himself or the positioning of others is of the highest level. When doing this in advanced positions he doesn’t just show the skill to pull off such a move, but he does the basic things right. In the next image we see him having the composure to see his teammate is in a better shooting position. Not only does he calmly roll the ball to the player but also plays it to his right foot, allowing him to shoot first time on his strongest foot. Yes this is a basic detail, but it makes all of the difference in a pressured situation such as this.
He does an excellent job of finding space in between the lines and whilst his goals are vital to his team, so is his link-up play. By filling these pockets of space Núñez is able to frequently get on the ball in more developed attacking phases and impact the play. We can see him receiving the ball in the next image where he has a plethora of options available to him. As well as having the time and space to turn and drive forward, he can lay the ball off and move into the box, or play out wide and do likewise. He can even drift in behind the opposition full-back into a crossing position, which he decides to do on this occasion.
Núñez doesn’t just use the width of the pitch to provide an option during build-up play but regularly shifts into these areas to act as a creator too.
Firstly, Núñez shows quality in 1v1 duels as a dribbler. This season he has averaged 6.05 dribbles per 90 and has completed 50% of these. He keeps his dribbling simple, but is highly effective. He simply looks to draw an opponent towards him, taking his time on the ball and hesitating momentarily, often even drawing a tackle attempt by the defender. At the right moment he will break away to one side of them, getting his body between them and the ball if necessary. He doesn’t overdo the dribble, instead releasing the ball quickly after beating an opponent. He instinctively crosses the ball into open spaces in the area, and has surprisingly good accuracy and vision for a centre-forward in this department.
He can pull the ball back across goal, whip a cross in, or even lift the ball towards the back post, standing it up and allowing the target the time to get to the ball as the defending team scramble to change direction.
We can see him showing outstanding vision to lift the ball over the entirety of the opposition defence in the following image. He doesn’t even look up before playing this cross. After beating the defender with a quick touch down the line he instinctively lifts the ball towards the back post where it is met by the highlighted player.
He shows this intuition on a frequent basis with him not looking up before hitting these crosses almost a trademark of some of his most creative passes. He is effective at creating the space to hit these crosses due to his dribbling but his ability to consistently hit dangerous areas with these deliveries allows him to contribute to the team not just as a goalscorer.
Positioning and movement
All of this isn’t to say Núñez doesn’t occupy central positions. He does do this, and he does it very well. Núñez varies his intentions in attack and on top of working as a target in attack he is also a highly dangerous runner in behind. Núñez has quality acceleration and top speed and his mobility allows him to quickly change direction and break away from a tight marker. In the following image we can see him in this central position you would expect from a centre-forward with his teammate in possession. He angles his run out wide whilst still keeping his eye on the ball.
Looping his run out into this position Núñez keeps himself well onside and then angles his run back towards the central channel, where he is met by the through pass in behind. Note the centre-back’s position, facing the ball albeit on the side-turn whilst Núñez is already facing full forwards. There is only one winner in this sprint race.
Núñez uses this angle on a consistent basis to create space for himself to run in behind. He will often drift out and play on the inside of the closest full-back. Against a high-line he is an easy outlet for his team to just simply play the ball over the top.
Núñez will create space for himself to run into as well with intelligent movements that intend to draw the opposition defence out of position. He will take a high starting position, and purposefully seek to allow himself to be man-marked. By then making a sudden movement towards the ball, as if to show for possession, he can draw this player with him and create space in behind to run into. The following example sees him moving towards the ball drawing the defender forwards too, before Núñez then checks and angles his run back in behind to be found with the easy through pass.
His intelligence with this kind of movement shows maturity well beyond the years of a 22 year-old striker. He understands how to create the best opportunity for himself to receive the ball in goal-scoring positions, and his execution on these kinds of movements is near flawless.
The next image sees him dropping out wide onto the full-back. As the ball is played into the central striker, Núñez sees the closest centre-back to him has had his attention and momentum drawn towards the ball. As this occurs Núñez then shifts back onto the outside shoulder of this centre-back, who is now none the wiser to his positioning. He is able to stay onside with this run and create space away from the opposition right-back who had been previously marking him.
Finally we come onto Núñez’s finishing which is the most eye-catching part of his game from the outside, but is merely the stamp-mark, punctuating the rest of the qualities he possesses.
Núñez’s shot map for Benfica from all competitions this season makes for incredibly interesting viewing. One of the most obvious things to note is that if Núñez hits the target, he generally scores, evident by the majority of circles on his map being pink, rather than blue. His shots come from a wide range of positions, and he shows some accuracy when shooting from further out. He will take shots quite happily from a wider angle when on the right side of the pitch, but clearly prefers to not do this when on the left side.
There are several factors that lead to Núñez being such a lethal finisher. Firstly his shot selection is generally of the highest level. He doesn’t force shots and if there isn’t room to squeeze a shot through he takes a touch into a position where there is, or he finds a pass and then looks to move into a new space where he could potentially receive the ball in a better shooting position.
He is lethal at finding the corners as well. There is a reason so many of his on target shots end up in the goal, and that is because Núñez so frequently hits a bottom corner.
He can create chances for himself through his dribbling, again using the simple hesitation and aggressive touch to one side to create the space. We can see him doing this against Barcelona in the Champions League from earlier this season in the next picture.
After creating enough space to get the shot away, on top of now being in a far more favourable angle to score from, Núñez is ruthless in picking out the front post and putting Benfica into the lead.
Núñez is an aerial threat inside the area too. He has a strong physique but is still lean and quick. He competes for aerial balls with power and excellent timing. He stands at 1.87m, or 6’2”, in height and so is well built to be such an aerial presence.
His movement inside the area isn’t always as proactive as that in deeper areas. However, he is dynamic in the right moments. We can see him static in the following image, waiting for the cross to come into the area from the right flank.
Yet as it does he springs into action. He jumps early, and uses his chest to lean into the opponent. He shows outstanding core strength and an impressive spring and timing in his leap to pull off this feat, but it allows him to “hang” in the air for longer, and gives him a clear advantage over the defender. What’s even more impressive in this example is that on top of all of this he still has the poise and technique to head the ball to the opposite direction of the keeper’s momentum.
To allow himself to get enough space and momentum from this initially static position to gain such an advantage over the defender, Núñez makes a late adjustment just as the cross comes in. This is something he regularly does before attacking a cross. He uses the motion of the ball-carrier about to make the cross as a cue to quickly move out, away from his marker, before then looping his run back inside. In doing so he gives himself two or three yards to make a run and gain momentum before attacking the ball, whilst the defender originally marking him is either static or back-tracking. They are also watching the ball, and not Núñez’s movement, and it gives the Uruguayan the edge in the aerial duel.
Núñez continues to impress in Portugal, both in domestic football but also on the European stage. His ability to score three goals in the Champions League has also allowed any doubters to see that he can perform in Europe’s premier competition – when there are still those that will question whether someone scoring goals in Portugal can do it in La Liga, Serie A, or the Premier League. It is highly unlikely there are those questioning that of Núñez now. Whilst he hasn’t been as creative this season, he has exceeded expectations in front of goal as a scorer. He is a ruthless finisher, and his movement is exceptional in creating space for himself to receive the ball in dangerous positions. And yet, as we’ve seen, Núñez is far more than just a goalscorer. He is integral to his team’s possession play both during build-up and in the opposition half. He has varied and intelligent movement off the ball, and is comfortable operating across the pitch, in different positions.