He is the Uruguayan forward seen as ideally suited to the Premier League after a breakout season with Benfica. Tall but quick, he is capable of running through the middle or in off the flank. At 22, Darwin Nunez might be the game’s next great striker.
“I am convinced,” Gonzalo de los Santos tells Sky Sports.
“He will become one of the five best strikers in the world.”
De los Santos was his sporting director at Penarol, the club in Uruguay where Nunez’s footballing story began. He was still there as recently as 2019. Indeed, he was playing in the second tier of Spain with Almeria just two years ago. The rise has been swift.
It is the story of a young man with strengths both physical and mental.
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“Darwin was an introverted boy when he was younger,” explains De los Santos. “Then, when he started to move up through the age groups, he began to loosen up and with each passing day at Penarol he became more integrated within the group.”
Born by the Brazilian border in Artigas, about as far away from the capital of Montevideo as it gets in Uruguay, his was a humble background. His father worked in construction, his mother collected bottles in the street. Sacrifices were made for their son.
He revealed this detail in a heartfelt press conference upon his arrival in Europe. He talked of begging the Penarol President for the move so that he could buy a house for his parents in Artigas. Driven to succeed, his motivation was to change their lives.
Fortunately, he had the talent to make it happen.
“His skills always stood out above the rest as he had a very athletic physique for his age. I think that the most remarkable thing about Darwin is this physical potential, combined with his ability to always find the space to break through any defence that he faces.”
There were setbacks, even after making his debut at the age of 18. Knee injuries delayed his progress – it was almost a year before he scored his first goal – but resilience is a quality that was evident from the outset. “His personality is very strong,” adds De los Santos.
“This does not mean that he is bad boy, he is simply very mature for his age and very calm. He has a winning mentality and that Uruguayan DNA. He is hungry for glory and sporting successes both at club level and for the Uruguay national team.”
The move to Almeria was the right one. It took him to Europe in a country where he spoke the language but outside the immediate demands of the highest tier. David Badia was assistant manager for much of Nunez’s time with the club and thinks it was a good fit.
“Almeria is not a big city in Spain,” Badia tells Sky Sports.
“You are out all the time because it is hot so I met him just walking around in the city. He was not staying at home not talking to anyone. It is a city where you can walk in the street and people would not stop him every five minutes like he might get in Lisbon.
“He is an ordinary person.”
One chance meeting with Nunez underlined that point when Badia ran into him buying a mobile phone. “I was with my wife buying a phone myself. It was amazing. You expect that he would buy the top model. He just wanted a normal phone so he could call his mother.”
“My wife asked for another model.”
Darwin Nunez has shown humility off the pitch as well as undoubted quality on it
Humble and with a point to prove, it made for a good combination in Spain’s second division. He was eased in but that does not mean it was easy.
“It is a very defensive league with veteran defenders who know everything. They try to push you, they kick you, they are on you all the time. It is difficult.”
Nunez had to adapt.
“We had several conversations with him,” Badia adds.
“When he arrived from Uruguay, everything was different. The stadiums, even the pitches are different. The ball goes faster because we water the pitch. It makes for a faster style than in South America. For that reason, he had to adapt to this rhythm.
“He did it pretty well.”
Javier Agenjo was Almeria’s fitness coach. He remembers this same humility. “He just worked hard,” Agenjo tells Sky Sports. “He came from a humble family and knew what was required to reach the top. He worked hard then and I am sure he works hard now.”
But, as a fitness coach, one trait stood out above all others.
“You could see that physically he was one of the fastest players in the league with the acceleration that he had,” adds Agenjo.
“He was just like a beast.”
Darwin Nunez's Champions League heatmap for Benfica this past season
Tactically, that quality shaped the team’s thinking.
“He is a tall guy but he is very quick off the mark and he can maintain that speed over long distances,” Badia explains. “That was amazing for the counter-attacks. You could put a long ball to him and he could beat defenders even if they were two metres ahead of him.
“He was amazing at that.”
It became Almeria’s chief route to goal.
“We had good players at No 10 and No 8 who could find very nice passes through the defensive line of the opponent. We had another fast winger. And he was our No 9.
“When we would steal the ball back in the middle of the pitch, we could find him easily because he is so good at finding the space, identifying the right areas to attack, understanding the deficiencies of the opposition defenders.”
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One game, in particular, has stayed in Badia’s memory. It was January 2020, the first game after a brief winter break. Almeria had a difficult trip to Lugo in the relative cold of Galicia, an assignment that traditionally takes Andalusian teams out of their comfort zone.
Ten minutes had passed when Nunez changed the game.
“It was an amazing goal on the counter-attack. The moment that he feels we are going to win the ball, he starts to run. If he does not run before then the goal does not happen. Because of that movement, when we played the ball, he was already at full speed.
“He was one-on-one with the goalkeeper and everyone was expecting him to go to one side or the other. Instead, he shot directly from distance. Even the goalkeeper was not expecting that sudden move. It was like a rocket, you know. He had these special moments.
“It is a video I still show my players today.”
Darwin Nunez's Champions League shot map for Benfica this past season
It was the first of two goals that afternoon and a run of nine goals in 10 games at the start of the year. That form reflected his increasing importance to the team. “He developed a lot during the season,” recalls Agenjo. “Scoring goals, growing in confidence.”
Almeria missed out on promotion to La Liga, beaten in the play-offs, but it was already obvious that this was not going to deny Nunez. “All of his team-mates knew that he would move to a bigger club, they saw the improvement too,” adds Agenjo.
“It was his first and last season in Almeria.”
Benfica's Darwin Nunez celebrates after scoring against Liverpool
The move to Benfica was another smart choice. This was a famous team in a high-profile league that offered the opportunity to play European football. But it was not yet the absolute elite leagues. He could learn his craft, continue to hone his raw talent.
That was illustrated by his total of six league goals in that first season at Benfica. The dramatic increase in his output came this past season. Nunez scored 26 goals at a rate of 1.18 per 90 minutes – the best strike rate of any player in Europe’s top seven leagues.
“He moved to Benfica, a bigger team, playing in Europe. But the numbers are still there,” says Agenjo. “He has shown himself to be a fighter. He has shown everyone now and he will move to one of the biggest clubs. For sure, he is ready to move one step forward.”
Darwin Nunez showed against Liverpool that he is ready for the Premier League
Speaking to his former coaches, there are smiles, even laughter, when this question of whether Nunez is capable of taking that next step is broached. They regard it as an inevitability – a matter of when rather than if he reveals his talent to a new audience.
Stylistically, there are some clubs that might suit him more than others. Agenjo wonders whether Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid might be the best fit because of his counter-attacking skills and fighting instincts. “He is this type of player,” he says.
Others believe the speed of the Premier League suits him well.
“One hundred per cent,” says Badia. “I think he will fit perfectly in the Premier League. He is strong, he can compete in the duels, he is very fast. He has improved his first touch. If there is any league in the world in which he will fit perfectly it is the Premier League.”
Perhaps the final word is best left to De los Santos, a former team-mate of Simeone at Atletico, where he also played with Fernando Torres. He is a native of Salto, the city that spawned those Uruguayan greats Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
“Darwin is a player with 10 to 12 elite years in European football ahead of him,” he says. But is he really capable of being one of the best five forwards on the planet?
“Right now, he is already among the best 10.”
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