The previous time Darwin Nunez left the Anfield pitch before the final whistle, there was no acknowledgement from Jurgen Klopp. Not the bearhug or the beaming smile, none of the German’s trademark ebullience. As Nunez trudged off in disgrace, his home debut curtailed by a red card, Klopp, the manager who couldn’t forget the Uruguayan tormenting his defence in Benfica’s colours, tried not to notice him.
Seven weeks on, a less explosive exit brought a greater show of affection. Klopp enveloped the substituted striker briefly and praised him afterwards. The redemptive tale belonged to Trent Alexander-Arnold, errant defender turned brilliant scorer, not Nunez. He was profligate, thwarted by a footballing pensioner on a night when he could have scored a hat-trick. His wait for a first Anfield goal goes on.
But he brought the kind of wholehearted endeavour Klopp likes. A striker doubled up as the leader of the press as a revamped formation meant the attackers did much of the defending. A player whose only other Anfield start, against Crystal Palace, was ended by the Glaswegian kiss of a headbutt on Joachim Andersen, was reintegrated against the Glaswegians of Rangers. For the first time in a game Nunez started, Liverpool won.
And Nunez starting has become newsworthy in itself. In each match he has not, there have been legitimate reasons: a three-match suspension, a minor injury at the weekend, the form of Roberto Firmino, Klopp’s correct choice to prefer Diogo Jota against Ajax, the questions about his temperament that may have explained his absence in Naples. But the cumulative effect was that he had begun fewer times than 36-year-old James Milner, less than a third of the number of 19-year-old Harvey Elliott. Forget the $64,000 question, Nunez has seemed Liverpool’s £64m conundrum.
And then, in a time of strife, an expensive answer. Klopp recalibrated Liverpool to 4-2-3-1 – though Alexander-Arnold termed it “a basic 4-4-2” and, when they pressed, it was in a 4-2-4 shape – and trusted Nunez. He liked what he saw. “The way the boys up front moved together was extremely, extremely good for only one session working on it, to be honest,” he said. “We never did it before. We had now one session and that with low intensity because we only played recently.”
If Nunez showed a pent-up energy that manifested itself in violent conduct against Palace, here it brought incessant running. It is one of the defining features of a Klopp forward: the other is to get into goalscoring positions. It is why Jota was such a natural fit. It is why Mohamed Salah has an annual contest with Harry Kane to have the most shots in the Premier League.
Nunez is shaping up as a similar shotaholic. He had six on his previous start, at Everton. He had a further six on his return. Four were saved by 40-year-old Allan McGregor and if Nunez may have had too little precision, directing a couple too close to the goalkeeper, it still required a fine display of acrobatics to keep him out.
Klopp emerged quietly confident the goals will come. “We can see that,” he said. “You saw how good a striker he is to be constantly in those situations. Everybody saw tonight that this will happen. So all good.”
Which would not be a two-word summation of Nunez’s Liverpool career so far. But part of Klopp’s prowess lies in his skill as a communicator and he can be stripped of his superpower when dealing with Nunez. Even as they had a long conversation on Sunday, it required Pep Lijnders’s abilities as an interpreter. Klopp’s message then was to stay calm, something Nunez singularly failed to do against Palace.
If his goals against Manchester City and Fulham in his first two substitute appearances gave him a stunning start, what has followed has been interrupted, anticlimactic, almost ominous in ways. Yet if many of Klopp’s finest signings have become integral immediately, whether Alisson or Virgil van Dijk, Sadio Mane or Salah, there is a subcategory of those who served their time on the fringes and then became mainstays, such as Fabinho and Andy Robertson.
There is an art to introducing a player to the team. Perhaps the old-fashioned, physical feel of a battle of Britain meant Nunez was suited for Rangers, maybe Klopp wanted a No 9 to pin them back. Possibly he felt the lower standard of the opposition could make it easier for Nunez to return to the goal trail. In that, at least, he failed.
The return fixture could afford another chance. In terms of the attacking pecking order, the more significant selections will be against Arsenal and City when he is less likely to field four forwards. Nunez will probably be back on the bench then. But, after the triple disappointment of the sending-off, the suspension and the time as a substitute, there feels more of a route back into the side.