Darwin Núñez: Benfica’s sought after Uruguayan jewel


September 4th, 2020. A date that will go down in the history books of Benfica.

It was the day the club made the signing of the then 21-year-old Darwin Núñez official. No ordinary signing. Benfica is a club that has traditionalized a transfer strategy of signing promising players cheap, developing them, and then selling them to the top-five leagues with a nice profit. But with Darwin, they splashed 24 million euros and broke their transfer record, and the transfer record in Liga NOS, for an Uruguayan kid from Almeria in the Spanish second-tier division.

Benfica’s sporting director, the legendary AC Milan and Fiorentina player Rui Costa, was fully convinced that the club had made a coup even though they spent a record fee on the 21-year-old. Something they had to do because there was a big interest for Darwin in Europe, already at this point.

– Due to the competition we had to fight, apparently many people in Europe are thinking the same as we are. He will be one of the great strikers of this decade in world football, Rui Costa said during the player presentation.

And Rui Costa was right. After a first season at Benfica where Darwin learned the league, the increased standard of quality contra the Spanish second-tier, as well as the club’s philosophy, style of play, and system, the now 22-year-old became an instant hit in his sophomore season.

With 26 goals in 33 appearances across all competitions so far, the Uruguayan scored against Bayern Münich, Barcelona, and Ajax in the Champions League, where the goal against Ajax sent his side through to the quarter-finals.

In January 2022, Benfica had to fight off interest from the Premier League for Darwin as the club turned down an offer of 50 million euros from West Ham. A risky decision, but smart in retrospect as clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United are now said to be interested and willing to pay more than 50 million euro.

Style of play

Darwin is primarily a striker but can also operate from a wing, preferably the left wing.

He is a dynamic player with great pace, strength, and an explosive acceleration. Something that makes him a big threat on counterattacks, attacking spaces, and runs behind the opposition defense.

Although his excel qualities lay in the goal-scoring department, he has a nice chance-creating ability as well. A good eye when to make sticks in behind the opponent’s defensive line to set his teammates up.

Photo: Sofascore

As shown by the heatmap above, Darwin tends to operate through the central channel as well as the left channel. This is much because he often opts to collect the ball by winning it or receiving it on the left side, to then cut inside and shoot. A move he has specialized in and somewhat trademarked. This is a pattern that can be seen regardless of him playing as a left-winger or as a central striker.

Darwin also likes to drop deep to collect the ball in the early build-up, to then progress it up the pitch and set his teammates up through either the wide or central channels. Overall, he likes to be involved in the game. Regardless of if it means to start attacks or finish them off.

Darwin is first and foremost a scorer. To help him score there are a few tools in his box that helps him more than others.

Explosive pace. The 22-year-old has an impressive and dynamic pace which gives him an edge to his game. When receiving passes into spaces to attack and when using it to beat his defender with a change of tempo, for example. That, combined with a big frame (187cm/6ft1) makes him a tough opponent to beat or push off the ball. An upper hand against many opponents.

Presence in the box. On top of the physical aspect, which helps a lot in the box, one of Darwin’s other main strengths is his overall presence in the box. His understanding of the game and anticipation make him a threat in the sense that he knows where to be and when to be there. For a goal scorer, the importance of this cannot be emphasized enough. Especially combined with his physical frame and his finishing abilities – which will be discussed further. And, much like he does on the rest of the pitch as well, he scans spaces well in the box too.

Finishing. This is Darwin’s main strength. Looking at the statistics, he scores 0.27 goals per shot. That means that every third shot he takes, he scores with. A very impressive track record. Comparing it with Robert Lewandowski, who’s applauded as one of the best scorers in the game, Lewandowski scores 0.21 goals per shot with a similar number of shots taken as Darwin.

But that is a rough comparison, though, because there are a lot of other factors that are decisive for the outcome. Like tougher opposition for Lewandowski, quality of the chances in which the shots have been taken (for both players), etc. Nevertheless, it is impressive by Darwin.

Looking further into his finishing numbers, he takes 3.72 shots per game and hits 56.5 percent of his shots on target. Out of those shots on target, he scores 49 percent.

Close control. His touch on the ball could be described as raw. It is not bad, necessarily, but it harms parts of his game.

In buildups and linkup play Darwin struggles as his touch, combined with his lack of coordination, and somewhat lack of composure, makes him a fragile focal point. Transitioning play through him, as a focal point, has proven unsuccessful for Benfica and the managers he’s played under. This is an area of his game that he must improve to become a more complete striker.

Transitioning play through him by him dropping down, collecting the ball, and progressing it is another scenario, though. Because then he can use his pace and athleticism to break lines and start attacks, which he has successfully proven that he is capable of.

Raw shots. Looking at Darwin’s shooting technique, it can be described as raw. He has the precision, but the strike on the ball is still somewhat raw and untrained. This is an area that has been improved since he joined Benfica, though, which to an extent can be seen as well in the increased number of goals he has scored in his sophomore season at the club. But if Darwin tunes this even further it will give him an even bigger edge as a striker and it will add more goals to his tally.

Darwin Núñez is a bona fide goal scorer. He is a part of a somewhat dying breed of striker. The type which has the athleticism, the size, and who both scores and assists goals.

His talent and quality are undeniable. He scores a lot, is an effective finisher, and has an edge with his pace and physical frame. If played as solely a number nine with the mission to score, he could probably do a good job already in one of Europe’s top-five leagues. But there are areas to his game in which he can improve and become an even more complete striker. That improvement could be the difference between making it at a top club and making it at a club just below the top club for him.

The 22-year-old has registered 26 goals and 2 assists in 33 appearances for Benfica this season, with goals in the big and important games against Barcelona, Bayern Münich, and Ajax. Something that testifies to him being a dependable player.

His strengths outweigh his weaknesses, and that is why clubs are prepared to pay big money for his signature in the summer. Given his age, his ability, and his accomplishments, it would be surprising if he did not play in a top-five league come the end of the summer transfer window.