How Liverpool lost their best forward and got even better

Fabio Carvalho (left) and Darwin Núñez - How Liverpool lost their best striker and got even better - GETTY IMAGES
Fabio Carvalho (left) and Darwin Núñez - How Liverpool lost their best striker and got even better - GETTY IMAGES

As well as being one Europe’s most exciting football teams, Liverpool head into the new season having enhanced their reputation as England’s great transfer choreographers.

Take the theatre of those two days in mid-June when Uruguayan Darwin Núñez was unveiled in a red jersey as Bayern Munich were taking Sadio Mané’s shirt measurements. With the showmanship of seasoned impresarios, Liverpool ushered forward the striker they believe will be their next superstar as the curtain was falling on a legendary Kop career.

As transitions go it is a case of so far, so seamless. Such perfect stagecraft should not be taken for granted in a world where their rivals are still scrambling for marquee signings. It has not always been so well orchestrated at Anfield.

Not so long ago, Liverpool losing a player of Mané’s class and status would provoke months of soul-searching and frantic deadline day bids for injury prone Newcastle strikers.

Think of the departures of Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Fernando Torres, Luis Suárez and, to a lesser extent, Raheem Sterling. Those walkouts cut deep, signalling Liverpool’s descent from the top of football’s pyramid and in some cases the beginning of the end of the manager’s reign.

That changed in the aftermath of the last, high-profile outgoing transfer to cause dismay at Anfield – that of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in January, 2018.

Philippe Coutinho - How Liverpool lost their best striker and got even better - REUTERS
Philippe Coutinho - How Liverpool lost their best striker and got even better - REUTERS

History now records it as a turning point in the Jürgen Klopp era, the £142 million received paying for Virgil van Dijk (who probably would have signed anyway) and Alisson Becker (who would not have been so affordable), alongside midfielder Fabinho.

By reacting to an unwanted transfer request with flawless recruitment, the long-term impact of Coutinho’s sale was a legacy more valuable than Barça’s millions: trust.

Michael Edwards, who was replaced as Liverpool’s sporting director Julian Ward in the summer, Fenway Sports Group president Michael Gordon, the team of data analysts worshipping at the temple of Moneyball pioneer Billy Beane and, of course, Klopp himself have long since banished darker memories of FSG’s reign when Andy Carroll and Christian Benteke shared the title of club record signing, Stewart Downing was the big hope on the left wing and Mario Balotelli brought the circus to town.

Fast forward to 2022 and the response to Liverpool’s sale of a world-class player could not be starker. Yes, there were a few murmurs when Mané said he wanted out – the public explanation still has gaps to be filled in the inevitable future autobiographies given Liverpool’s superiority to Bayern. But there was no hint of internal or external unrest in the summer. The response can be best summed up as a collective shrug, gracious handshake and broad assessment of ‘fair enough, now it’s over to you Darwin’.

The Premier League return will determine how justified that uber-confidence. For all the encouragement taken from Núñez’s first, goalscoring appearance on English soil in last weekend’s Community Shield, the pertinent question is which of Mané and Liverpool will miss the other more, especially as the Senegal striker was Klopp’s most productive attacker in the final six months of the last campaign.

Darwin Núñez - How Liverpool lost their best striker and got even better - GETTY IMAGES
Darwin Núñez - How Liverpool lost their best striker and got even better - GETTY IMAGES

As has been well documented, Núñez is not a direct replacement for Mané. He will still be judged as such, his goal and assists compared to what Mané delivered. Liverpool’s title and Champions League aspirations will be influenced by how soon Núñez adapts and how effectively the tweaks in Klopp’s style facilitate a traditional No 9.

Núñez’s 30 minute, goal-scoring, shirt-removing cameo against Manchester City last was a reassuring start. So too is young midfielder Fabio Carvalho’s impressive pre-season and the sight of a re-energised Mohamed Salah, while smart punters might back Luis Díaz to be this season’s star turn.

“Top players never ruin things,” said assistant manager Pep Lijnders, acknowledging the subtle changes to Liverpool’s forward line entering the Núñez and Díaz era.

“In life it is always important not to look too much to the past,” he added. “You can speak about what you had, but it is much more about what you want. We feel with our squad, especially our front players, we are ready to compete.

“The individual player will always influence the team in a certain way. For example, Luis Díaz gives a different problem on the outside when he receives the ball. He will dribble and then wait, which means the players in the centre have more time to go. If we play with Bobby (Roberto Firmino) he will play in the centre more calmly, waiting, which gives the players more time to come from the outside. So what I am trying to say is that Luis gives a different vibe and Darwin gives that as well. We know where we want to go. We know what we want.”

Ultimately, for Klopp and Liverpool the plan in 2022/23 is for more of the same with an alternative ending.

“If I had to choose one thing to be different it would be beating City in the direct confrontations,” said Lijnders.

Beat City, win the league. Sounds like the makings of another well-executed Liverpool plan.