The Darwin Núñez Problem Liverpool Must Resolve

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Fulham Chaos

Sometimes rational analysis in the cold light of day belies a football match. Liverpool’s 4-3 victory over Fulham was a strange, chaotic, glorious beast of a thing.

You had the Reds scoring four in a league game without a forward getting any of them for the first time in 11 years. There were two players scoring their first goal for the club from outside the box in the same match for the first time in almost two decades. Liverpool won after going behind in the 80th minute, the latest turnaround they had ever managed in the Premier League. I mean, I could go on.

The confounding nature of the game was not limited to trivia but was embedded deeply into the match statistics as well. If we credit Trent Alexander-Arnold with the opener, the four goals came from a combined distance of 95 yards.

Photo: IMAGO

That tops the 91 accumulated in another 4-3, against Manchester City in 2017/18 – remember Mohamed Salah whistling the ball over a stranded Ederson’s head? – and was just one yard shy of the cumulative total in the 9-0 pummeling of Bournemouth last year. The Fulham match is third in the standings from the last 267 league and European matches in which Liverpool scored, with the 7-0 win at Selhurst Park from three years ago this month top of the (Christmas) tree, with 104 goal yards.

Rare Events

Too long; didn’t read? The nature of the Reds’ goals was something of a once in a generation event. Spectacular to watch, sure, but unlikely to be repeated before the world burns up in a few years’ time.

Multiple things can be true at once, though. While the three awarded goals came from a combined expected goals tally of just 0.23 (or 0.28 if we include the opener), Liverpool had six chances worth more than any of those from which they scored. Four of them were classified as ‘big’ by Opta, meaning they were those where “a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually in a one on one scenario or from very close range when the ball has a clear path to goal and there is low to moderate pressure on the shooter.”

Having that many is not that unusual. In the Reds’ 299 matches since the start of 2018/19, they have had exactly four big chances 51 times (17.1 per cent), four-or-more on 107 occasions (35.8 per cent).

However, having four is one thing, missing four is another; there have only been 27 matches in the last five years in which the Reds squandered at least a quartet of big chances. To refresh your memory with what occurred against Fulham, firstly Salah was clean through in first half stoppage time but Bernd Leno saved his shot from a fairly tight angle.

After the break, Darwin Núñez first hit the woodwork with a powerful drive then sliced an effort with which he didn’t make decent contact wide of the goal. These three chances occurred while the score line was 2-2; would the visitors have fought back a third time had one of them been converted?

Worse was to come in the 84th minute, with the Reds 3-2 down. Leno made another save, this time from Luis Díaz, with Salah blazing the rebound over the bar from just four yards out. It made the match just the 10th since the summer of 2018 in which Liverpool had at least four big chances and missed the lot. Sadly, the draw at Luton saw six go begging, showing the cost this issue can have.

Best Performing Big Chance Teams

There are far worse problems. In their first 14 league games of 2023/24, the Reds have averaged 3.36 big chances per match. Across the previous 12 completed Premier League seasons, there were only four instances of teams averaging more; Liverpool in 2021/22 (3.47) and a trio of Manchester City sides (with – perhaps surprisingly – their 2019/20 vintage top on 3.71).

Their potency this season is undoubtedly a good thing. The problem is that an enormous proportion of the Reds’ non-penalty big chances are falling to a player with a very erratic record of converting them.

Núñez has had more golden opportunities than the next two players in the standings combined, yet he has converted fewer of them than either Salah or Diogo Jota. Even someone like Díaz is only one behind despite having about a quarter as many as Darwin.

As you can see from the chart (which covers all competitions), he has had two lengthy droughts, one of which is ongoing. After thankfully netting his first of the campaign, at Newcastle, Núñez then missed eight in a row. Using the average xG value for Opta-defined big chances and a simulator, we find there is just a 1.9 per cent likelihood that eight of them would be missed. A player is almost twice as likely to score six as zero.

Liverpool’s conversion rate is 40.4 per cent this term. It’s not disastrous – it’s a little above average – and they have had three campaigns in the last 12 where it was lower. However, they were 2011/12, 2020/21 and last season, none of which went anywhere near as well as Kopites would have hoped. Nobody misses on purpose, of course, but if the Reds (and especially Núñez) can sharpen up, it could easily turn Liverpool from title contenders to title favourites.

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