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Darwin Nunez’s red card on Anfield debut: A one-off or a sign of things to come?

There was a show of contrition from Darwin Nunez inside the Liverpool dressing room before he widened the scope of his apology.

His team-mates, who had gutsily salvaged a point against Crystal Palace in his absence on Monday night, returned after the final whistle to find the devastated striker still coming to terms with how his Anfield debut had been wrecked by a senseless red card for violent conduct.

“He was very down in the changing room, feeling sorry, and thinking it was all his fault,” revealed midfielder Harvey Elliott. “For him, it’s a learning curve. We’ll be there for him as a collective.”

There had been a degree of provocation from Palace’s Joachim Andersen, but Nunez knew there was no excuse for angrily squaring up to him and jabbing his head in the direction of the Denmark centre-back. He took full responsibility.

(Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

“I am aware of the ugly attitude I had. I’m here to learn from my mistakes and it won’t happen again,” he posted on social media 24 hours later. “Apologies to Liverpool all. I’ll be back.”

Jurgen Klopp picked his words carefully in his post-match interviews, knowing the 23-year-old felt bad enough without his new manager adding to the torrent of public criticism. He has since spoken with Nunez privately.

It’s not often that Klopp has to deal with bouts of indiscipline.

Liverpool have finished top of the Premier League’s Fair Play table in six of the last seven seasons.

Nunez’s was only the ninth red card of the German’s Liverpool reign.

Of the previous eight, five were second yellows.

The others were shown for Sadio Mane’s high boot which caught Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson in the face in September 2017, Alisson handling outside the box against Brighton just over two years later and an Andy Robertson tackle on Tottenham’s Emerson Royal last December.

You have to go back to Steven Gerrard’s dismissal for stamping on Ander Herrera 38 seconds after coming on against Manchester United at Anfield in March 2015 for the last time Liverpool had a player sent off for such a moment of madness.

(Photo: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

A three-match ban means Nunez will miss the league fixtures against United, Bournemouth and Newcastle, hampering Klopp’s mission to fully integrate his big summer signing into the team. He will be back available for the trip to Everton on September 3. But will he be trusted to keep his emotions in check on derby day?

What did Monday’s incident tell us about his character? Was it just a one-off that will be easily addressed or a sign of things to come?

Liverpool are no strangers to Uruguayan strikers with baggage.

Luis Suarez was a genius with the ball at his feet but there were some shameful disciplinary issues along the way. Suarez played on the edge and had a habit of over-stepping the mark.

Considering he was serving a ban for biting PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal two months before he moved to Anfield from Ajax in January 2011, Liverpool couldn’t say they weren’t warned.

In contrast, Nunez’s disciplinary record before arriving at Liverpool was close to exemplary.

He picked up just 10 yellow cards and was never sent off during 85 appearances across his two seasons with leading Portuguese side Benfica.

“Yeah, he never did anything like that here,” says journalist Filipe Dias, who works for Lisbon-based sports newspaper Record.

“He didn’t get into many altercations.

“I wouldn’t say he was hot-headed. Of course, he would get some rough treatment from defenders during games but he would also give it back. He’s a physical player. He always seemed to love that side of things.

(Photo: Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images)

“The biggest difference between playing in Portugal and England, aside from the step up in quality, is that referees here blow their whistle more easily. Every little thing is a foul here.

“It’s definitely more physical in the Premier League in terms of what referees allow, so he will have to get used to that. But even so, he’s got enough experience to know you can’t react like he did on Monday.

“I think something got into his nerves. To me, it looked like performance anxiety. The big transfer fee brings with it a lot of pressure. Playing for a club like Liverpool brings pressure too. He’s trying to win over the fans. He needs to relax, because he’s a top player.”

There had certainly been few signs of Nunez having a short fuse during his early days at Liverpool — although he did clash with Andersen during a pre-season friendly last month. He has endeared himself to staff and team-mates alike with his attitude and application both on and off the pitch. They talk about someone who is quiet and respectful but driven.

The Brazilian trio of Fabinho, Roberto Firmino and Alisson, along with Spaniards Thiago and Adrian, have been a great source of support for a player who speaks little English.

However, what was clear against Palace was how he grew increasingly frustrated, not just by Andersen’s close attention but by the openings that went begging.

In the first half, Nunez volleyed over and then struck a post before scuffing another opportunity after being played in by Mohamed Salah shortly after the break.

Robbie Fowler is one of the greatest goalscorers in Liverpool’s history, having netted 183 times in 369 matches for the club across two spells.

Nicknamed ‘God’ by the Kop, he’s in the pantheon of legends that Nunez aspires to join.

“I was really surprised what Darwin did, given his background,” Fowler tells The Athletic. “Having played in Uruguay, Spain and Portugal, I’d be amazed if defenders hadn’t done that to him before. I don’t think it was a case of experiencing something new and reacting, it was more that he got caught up in all the furore of making his Anfield debut.

“He’d been given a start after a couple of appearances off the bench and was desperate to impress. Things hadn’t been going his way and he lost his head. In the end, his big night was ruined. He’s got some making up to do and he has to learn from it because other defenders will try to wind him up in a similar fashion every week.”

Fowler was sent off twice playing for Liverpool. On both occasions, there was provocation from opponents.

He retaliated after being clattered from behind by Everton’s David Unsworth, who was also dismissed, in a derby at Goodison Park in April 1997. Seven months later, Fowler got involved in an off-the-ball skirmish with Bolton’s Per Frandsen. He was 22 at the time and it didn’t happen again during his final five years at the club.

“It’s a horrible feeling being sat there on your own in the dressing room after being sent off,” he says. “More than anything, you feel like you’ve let your team-mates down. You’ve left them a man short and made things more difficult for them. Then you’ve got the weeks that follow when you train but you can’t play due to the ban.

“I was told years ago that the best way to hurt an opponent who has got under your skin is to put the ball in the back of the net. I took that on board. That’s the way you have to look at it. That’s the payback. That’s how you have to channel that emotion.

“It was different in my case, because I reacted to a really nasty challenge against Everton. I’m not condoning what I did but I think when you see the tackle back, you can probably understand why I reacted like I did.

“Darwin was just getting pushed and pulled a bit. I read that it was a masterclass from Andersen but I didn’t see it that way. It was just a defender doing what defenders do. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

“Did I have a problem with what Andersen did? To be honest, no. As a centre-forward, you know a defender’s objective is to put you off your game. A shove here and there, that’s part and parcel of the game.

“As a centre-forward, you’re involved in 50-50 battles all the time. Trying to create space for yourself, you use your arms to push defenders away and run off them, finding that extra yard to operate in. It’s not like you run in a straight line alongside the centre-back.

“I don’t think it’s a case of players needing to be protected more. If a defender wraps two arms around you and stops you jumping or moving, the ref is going to blow for a foul. The other stuff you get on with.”

What about Nunez’s temperament during his formative years?

Fernando Curutchet was his youth coach at Penarol in Uruguay and paints a picture of a teenage striker who tended to beat himself up mentally when things weren’t going well.

“He really liked to turn with the ball whenever he received it. When he received the ball with his back to goal, he always wanted to spin, to leave his marker behind and dribble clear,” Curutchet explains.

“He slowly began to realise that he couldn’t do that so easily in the older age categories. He worked on it. He started to lay the ball off more and make runs towards goal. It actually made him a more dangerous player. After a one-touch lay-off to a team-mate, he could turn and sprint in behind, making the most of his pace. That was one of the most positive changes to his game.

“He was a happy kid. Very close to his family. Sometimes, when things didn’t go well, he would get a bit down. He was always his own biggest critic.”

(Photo: Jorge Bernal/AFP via Getty Images)

Leonardo Ramos, the coach who gave him his senior debut for Montevideo-based Penarol, adds: “He is still very young and will keep learning. He has eight to 10 years at the top ahead of him and will pick things up, because English football is so intelligent. The centre-backs there are very hard and physical. Darwin will have to learn how to deal with that.”

Pedro Emanuel was Nunez’s manager at Almeria in Spain after the striker first moved to Europe in the summer of 2019. The only red card of his professional career before Monday came against Elche in the Spanish second division in January 2020 when he was booked twice for careless fouls.

Sixteen goals in 32 games in his only season with Almeria earned him a club-record €24million transfer to Benfica.

“He was a young player moving to a completely different environment (from South America),” Emanuel says. “He had desire and determination which Uruguayan players usually have. But, of course, it was a step up in terms of expectation and the demands upon him. He grew. He made a few errors too, but he became more mature with every experience.

“He will have to adapt again at Liverpool. I believe Klopp will have patience with him, and Darwin himself will see that Liverpool is one of the biggest clubs in the world. He will understand how high the expectations are.

“If they have invested that much money in him, it’s because they think he can make a difference. But all in his own time. I think Klopp understands that and will protect him. He is still young and can still get better.

“He can also grow mentally. He will learn how to forget about the times when things don’t go his way in matches; that comes with age and experience.

“He is always asking more of himself, more of the team. Sometimes he would walk off the pitch angry because he wanted more. He, more than anyone, knows that it’s not just about getting to the top. The most difficult thing is to stay there, to show you can survive there, swimming with the sharks. That’s his next challenge.”

Nunez has previously spoken about seeing a sports psychologist to help him deal with criticism and abuse on social media and trying to block that noise out remains a work in progress.

He was targeted by trolls during Liverpool’s pre-season tour to Thailand and Singapore last month, where he failed to score in both matches. He responded by tweeting a shushing emoji with the Spanish word resiliencia (resilience) and then scored four times in the next friendly against RB Leipzig in Germany.

“We always think that if you pay a lot of money then the players feel no pressure or whatever,” Klopp says. “They are all completely normal human beings and when the first touch is not perfect then… . This generation of players read social media, which is really not smart, but they do. All of a sudden, you get in a rush.”

From the high of scoring off the bench in the Community Shield and then repeating the trick against Fulham a week later to the low of being sent off on his home debut. It’s been a rollercoaster start at Liverpool for Nunez.

That will to win has been key to his remarkable rise, but it has to be challenged correctly.

(Main graphic — Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)

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