Jurgen Klopp has seen his Liverpool players win the Premier League and the Champions League, watched them beat Barcelona 4-0 and Manchester United 5-0, but there was something he had never witnessed in his first 383 games as Liverpool manager. That changed on Darwin Nunez’s Anfield bow as, in something that had never happened in a reign that began in 2015, one of his charges was dismissed for violent conduct.
“There is always a first time,” said the German, but his downbeat demeanour showed that this was one he would rather not have happened. Initially, he was not sure how it had: he spotted Joachim Andersen on the Anfield turf and Nunez walking away. It was not until he was shown a replay that he realised the £64m striker had headbutted the Crystal Palace defender. “Yes, it is a red card,” he said. In a weekend when one German manager found fault with refereeing decisions, another did not.
Andersen may have been the agent provocateur, with a shove, but the reality Nunez had attempted a butt with the back of his head seconds earlier meant there was still less mitigation. “It was provocation and definitely the wrong reaction but he will learn off that,” said Klopp. “Unfortunately he has now three games to do that. It is not cool for us. That is not how he should behave.”
And it is not how his players have tended to behave. Nunez has looked a natural fit, a quintessential Klopp player, from his dynamic debut in the Community Shield, but this was not merely the wrong sort of explosive introduction. It was out of character for the team.
Liverpool’s outstanding record has not been confined to numbers of wins or points, to unbeaten runs and records of achievement. They have been chart toppers, finishing first in the fair-play table – if cards are the criteria – in five of Klopp’s six full seasons and second in the other.
Klopp can whip a crowd up into a frenzy. His players tend to be motivated, but intensity and energy had never spilled over into that type of indiscipline. Liverpool’s gegenpressing often makes them unpleasant to play against but has nevertheless brought relatively few bookings and a small number of sendings off; even then, they have tended to be for two yellow cards. Even a straight red for a tackle, like Andy Robertson’s hack at Tottenham in December, stands out for its rarity.
Sadio Mane’s dismissal at Manchester City in 2017, for a rather high boot, was an attempt to play the ball and score a goal. The same could not be said for Nunez as he made his ignominious exit. As a loss of control, it was unprecedented in Klopp’s reign; for the striker, it should be unrepeatable, but he is permitted to make his comeback in a Merseyside derby at Goodison Park and his temperament will be tested there.
Dodge suspensions to score sufficient goals and he may become Liverpool’s record scorer. As it is, he already has an unwanted place in their history. No Liverpool player had previously received a red card on his first appearance at Anfield; even Joe Cole, sent off on his Premier League bow, had previously figured in a Europa League qualifier against Rabotnicki.
Cole’s crime was a mistimed challenge. Some worse offences at Anfield since then have gone unpunished at the time and Nunez somehow went further than Liverpool’s last Uruguayan forward: Luis Suarez’s many misdemeanours brought other punishments but no red cards.
For Nunez, perhaps the pressure of a price tag got to him, perhaps the frustration of failing to break down Palace’s blanket defence. Neither is an excuse. His immediate reaction, of disbelief and dissent, was one of delusion. It may have been replaced by realism.
“Darwin knows he let his teammates down,” said Klopp. They nevertheless salvaged a point, through Luis Diaz’s outstanding goal, but dropping two means they have already given Manchester City a huge headstart in the title race. Nunez has already dented Liverpool’s chances of becoming champions. And for a striker who deals in goals and after a weekend that featured one calamitous defensive performance, perhaps the greatest punishment is that suspension means he is denied the chance to face Manchester United next week.