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Jurgen Klopp has quietly found a surprising new Liverpool playmaker

Darwin Nunez has faced almost constant criticism since joining Liverpool. Strict supervision is the price to pay when playing for one of the world’s biggest football clubs, and he did himself no favors by being sent off on his first start in England.

Much of the mockery of Nunez’s performance stems from the fact that he missed big opportunities at big moments. An optimist would point out that at least he was in the right place, that the opportunity wouldn’t have presented itself without his pace and movement. However, such sober analysis does not attract much engagement on social media.

The former Benfica player is also often mocked for his poor decision-making in the final third, with his teammates missing out on big chances thanks to his inability to complete a pass. While Nunez has undoubtedly squandered several valuable chances for Liverpool, there are no major issues with the creative side of his game. Pro rata, he was one of the most prolific players in the 2022/23 Premier League.

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Nunez’s record of two assists (plus one against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup) suggests otherwise. However, this is a poor method of measuring a player’s creativity as they rely on a teammate converting their shot. The 23-year-old’s record with clear odds is all the evidence we need for this.

This statistic refers to chances where you would expect the player who has the goal to try to score. Trent Alexander-Arnold leads Liverpool this season, with 13 in all competitions, ahead of Mohamed Salah on nine. Nunez is next, with eight, though only two of them have turned into assists. Andy Robertson has created one less clear chance but has scored four goals for his efforts.

An even more detailed way to look at the data is to factor in expected assists. This is where the player who creates an opportunity gets their expected target value to put on their ledger. In the Premier League, Nunez has accumulated 3.3 xA this season (according to FBRef), placing him close to Alexander-Arnold (3.8), Salah (3.7) and Robertson (3.4).

But that trio has all played significantly more football. Nunez averages 0.33 expected assists per 90 minutes, a figure no Liverpool player can match with at least that much playing time. Only Diogo Jota of the whole team is ahead of him, and only by 0.03 after unfortunately playing only 196 minutes this season.

Looking back over the past five years, it’s rare that a member of Jurgen Klopp’s side with at least 900 minutes improves Nunez’s creative output this season. Alexander-Arnold averaged a stunning 0.41 last season, while no Liverpool player matched the Uruguayan’s 0.33 in 2020/21 or the campaign that saw the Reds win their 19th league title.

There was no one the season before either – with James Milner surprisingly on top, with 0.27 – while Philippe Coutinho averaged 0.38 in the 2017/18 half before leaving for Barcelona. It is rare for a player to surpass Nunez’s current level, but the Brazilian doing so in a similarly small sample size suggests it will be difficult for the Liverpool number 27 to maintain his form until the end of the campaign.

Still, he had an almost identical record at Benfica, averaging 0.32 expected assists per 90 in his two Primeira Liga campaigns with them. The level in England is higher, but so is the ability of Nunez’s new attacking team-mates and the quality of coaching he receives from Klopp. Perhaps he can continue at his current level.

We’ll see if The Reds’ summer signing can maintain its place among the Premier League’s creative elite in due course. Currently only Bruno Fernandes (0.35 xA per 90) and Kevin De Bruyne (0.51) are ahead of Nunez in the standings. Criticize his finishing if you must, but his ability to create chances is one of the very best.

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