Charles Darwin put together his ‘Theory of Evolution’ in 1869. What he didn’t know is that 153 years later and 11,000 kilometres apart, another guy with the same name will be making a mark for himself in another profession, justifying the theory put forward by Charles. And this guy goes by the name of Darwin Núñez.
Before this takes a turn towards a thesis on evolution, let’s take a look at current media darling and Benfica forward Núñez’ career and how he has burst onto the scene, with the likes of PSG, Chelsea and Manchester United being frontrunners for his signature this summer.
From the likes of Luis Suarez to Diego Forlan to Edison Cavani to Enzo Francescoli to Alvaro Recoba to Gus Poyet, Darwin Núñez is in the pipeline with the potential to become not only one of the best Uruguayan forwards but one of the best forwards in the world.
Born in Artigas (named after the Liberator of Latin America: Jose Gervasio Artigas Arnal), 550 km south of Montevideo, Darwin joined the famed academy of Penarol. He suffered a couple of serious knee injuries in his development years in the academy, but still progressed through the ranks and eventually made his debut for the first team, coming on for Maxi Rodriguez in a 2-1 loss against River Plate Montevideo. Although he managed just 14 appearances for his beloved Penarol, scoring 4 goals in the process, he attracted the attention of a host of clubs in Europe. He eventually ended up in the South of Spain in the province of Andalusia. Almeria CF, who plied their trade in Segunda Division snapped him up beating a host of Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and German teams in the process thanks to their good relationship with Penarol. A modest fee of €13 million (because the club is bankrolled by the Saudi Arabian Government) was enough for Darwin to pack his bags and start his European journey, becoming the record sale for a teenager in Uruguay and the costliest transfer in the 2nd division of Spain.
A 16-goal haul in just 30 appearances was enough to earn him a move to Benfica worth €24 million, again becoming the costliest buy in Portuguese League history and biggest sale from the Spanish 2nd division, that too in a period where world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Darwin’s start in Benfica wasn’t one he expected. A couple of injuries and getting infected by the Coronavirus kept him on the sidelines and there was no regular, consistent playing time in the first few months. But this period of transition helped him evolve and improve his physical self.
His second season in Lisbon has proven to be the breakthrough at the big stage. Consistent playing time coupled with playing in his preferred spaces on the pitch has seen him score goals consistently. He has been praised for his off the ball movement and defensive work rate: culminating the fact that he has come from the land fabled for indigenous Charrua people. Him being Uruguayan automatically means that he is the epitome of “Garra Charrua”: no matter what the odds and what adversities are existing, there is sheer tenacity to take on any obstacle head-on and come home as victors.
Darwin has evolved into a well-rounded forward, carrying the lineage of his Uruguayan ancestors and combining that mentality with the modern game. His athletic frame – upright in posture, defined in shape, rangy in length – is his distinguishing feature. Excellent acceleration and sprinting speed is the defining facet of his athletic skill set. His athleticism is a game-changer and is only enhanced by incisive movement and intelligent instincts.
I will now look more at the tactical instructions and the player’s strengths and weaknesses which has made him a hot property, combining my analysis with data and visualizations from our good friend Anuraag (Twitter: @Anuraag027. Check his work out if you haven’t).
Benfica have used a host of formations under Jorge Jesus and Nelson Verissimo – 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2, 3-4-3. Darwin has played in a number of roles – as a primary forward, with him being the focal point of the game in counter-attacking situations or on the left flank, interchanging positions with the Ukrainian Romain Yaremchuk or playing off the shoulder of talented Second-Striker/Attacking Midfielder Goncalo Ramos.
Núñez doesn’t restrict himself to remaining in the central channel. Whilst he can play in this space, working the centre-backs, and running into central channels, 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 doesn’t frequently 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 sometimes. Núñez shows quality in 1v1 duels as a dribbler too. This season he has averaged 6.05 dribbles per 90 and has completed 50% of these. He usually doesn’t overdo the dribble. He instead releases the ball quickly after beating an opponent.
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 into defenders effectively and uses his full frame to protect the ball when doing this. Núñez has the ability to create enough space to turn in tight areas. 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 well beyond his young age.His natural tendency to drift leftwards which makes him more efficient as a wide forward at times. A player of his quality is a real threat on counter-attacks where his athletic frame and speed plus acceleration is a real menace to deal with on defensive transitions for the opposition’s high defensive line.
In the above visualization, it can be clearly seen that the majority of his touches are in the left half space. Neither are they deep and wide enough to be classified as a LW movement nor are they central enough to be classified as a proper Center Forward. His progressive carries also confirm this aspect. He prefers to drift to the left and take on players using the angle for his preferred right foot.
Finishing is one facet of the game which requires a lot of improvement if he is to become a lethal finisher for a top team. Despite getting into brilliant positions, thanks to his great off-the-ball movement coupled with a burst of pace, he doesn’t have the calm and composure to regularly put the ball past the keeper yet. He is a volume shooter who ends up getting into good positions, but he is yet to master his aggression where it matters the most – in front of the goal. This aggression ends up getting the better of him at times during one vs one situations.
In comparison to his single season in Spain and his first season in Portugal, Darwin has shown some signs to improve this aspect of his game with some improvement seen this season. He now takes more shots where he tries to bury the ball into the corner, may it be top one or bottom one instead of hitting straight at the keeper or taking an extra touch.
Once again, from the visualization, it can be clearly seen that his pass reception is also very left half-space dominated but the verticality and box presence should also be noted. It is much closer to a striker’s pass reception map than a winger’s, just a very left-leaning one. His shot map is a bit more well spread and 20 non-penalty goals from 71 shots is a good return for sure. He comfortably sits at the top of the Primeira Liga scoring charts with 24 goals, 9 ahead of the next best scorer. There are goals in this exciting forward, especially if he keeps improving his composure and if a team plays to his strengths like Benfica have done this year.
A failed bid of €50 million on deadline day in January 2022 by West Ham United apparently sparked something inside Darwin, who recently changed his agent, aligning with one of the agencies run by super-agent Jorge Mendes. There is a reason why Chelsea, Paris St. Germain and Manchester United are frontrunners when it comes to Darwin’s signature this summer (As per the reliable David Ornstein).
But does Manchester United need yet another left-leaning wide forward who likes to play on the break? United have been trying to align to a more structured possession-based game for a few years, and this will be even more true if the Erik Ten Hag rumours come through. The squad already has Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Anthony Elanga and Cristiano Ronaldo who all prefer the left wing or left half-space at the very least. The team badly needs a proper right winger and a Central Forward who provides central box presence and hold up, something which Ronaldo has struggled to do all year despite his intermittent goal-scoring. Núñez is neither of those and given his personality and traits, he would naturally drift to the left and utilize his pace, physicality and right-footed angle to beat defenders and take shots. It might be quite similar to Marcus Rashford when he plays striker for United.
At a reported price of a whopping €80m, when United have many glaring issues to sort, not only in the squad but in the day-to-day running of the club, it probably doesn’t make any sense to go for Darwin Núñez. This would quickly become yet another example of mis-profiling players and getting caught in the over-the-top hype created by media and fans. United should turn their efforts to scouting attackers that fit their needs instead of getting caught up in this high profile chase.
Final call: This is one transfer United should simply side step without thought. As good as Núñez is, It doesn’t make sense from a financial or tactical angle.
In summary, Núñez has the tools to grow into a brilliant striker and the mentality to adapt to new tactical setups and new cultures. He commands a big asking price given his red-hot form and potential. He now has Jorge Mendes as his agent who can broker deals for even dead players. Benfica have a healthy period of time (Darwin signed a 5-year contract with the club in 2020) to earn a hefty profit, knowing that he is attracting the interest of the elites. An absence from the Champions League may just push them to cash in on him.
Football has become very cut-throat as an industry at the top level. If you are paid top bucks, you are expected to deliver instant goods. Darwin still needs a year or two to ease into that transition to a top team as of now – time which he will not get at those top clubs if he moves straight away.
As his namesake suggests, it all comes back to “Survival of the Fittest.”