As Liverpool’s fading Premier League title aspirations took another hit in a 3-3 shootout with Brighton, the club’s major summer signing Darwin Nunez watched on from the bench for 89 minutes.
The Uruguayan, recruited from Benfica for an initial 75-million-euro ($73 million, £66 million) fee that could rise to 100 million euros, has found himself regularly sidelined by Jurgen Klopp in the early months of his Liverpool career despite a concerning start to the season for the Reds.
Liverpool has won just three of their opening nine games of the campaign to fall already 11 points off the pace in the Premier League and with work to do to reach the last 16 of the Champions League ahead of Rangers’ visit to Anfield on Tuesday.
Nunez scored twice in his first two appearances as Liverpool beat Manchester City in the Community Shield and salvaged a 2-2 draw at Fulham on the opening weekend of the season.
But he has since failed to find the net and started just once since being sent off on his home debut for a headbutt on Crystal Palace defender Joachim Andersen in August.
Realising Nunez’s potential is far from the only issue Klopp has to resolve.
He described the ease with which Brighton played through the Liverpool midfield as “horrendous” and a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Napoli in the Champions League last month as a “horror show”.
The spotlight on Trent Alexander-Arnold’s defensive weaknesses have helped mask Virgil van Dijk’s alarming dip in form.
There remains hope for Nunez that he can follow in the footsteps of Andy Robertson and Fabinho as players that took months to adjust to Klopp’s demands before becoming bedrocks of the German’s Champions League and Premier League triumphs.
But the 23-year-old’s failure to hit the ground running has exposed the high-wire act Liverpool has pulled off under Klopp just to regularly compete with Manchester City for the Premier League title and reach three Champions League finals in five seasons.
– Little margin for error –
During Klopp’s seven years at Anfield and Pep Guardiola’s six in charge of City, Liverpool’s net spends on players has been less than half that of the English champions.
The Reds’ near flawless recruitment has kept them competing for major trophies, no more so than last season when they were challenged for an unprecedented quadruple until the final two matches of a 63-game season.
But the desire of owners Fenway Sports Group to balance the books leaves Liverpool with far less room for error in the transfer market than that enjoyed by City, Manchester United and Chelsea.
Questions are already being raised as to whether the money spent on Nunez should have been more wisely invested in rejuvenating an ageing midfield.
Yet, any pleading of poverty from Liverpool will fall on deaf ears this week as Rangers are the ones trying to bridge an enormous financial gap.
Nunez’s initial transfer fee alone was more than the Scottish giants’ entire turnover of £54 million in the 2020/21 season.
Despite reaching the Europa League final last season, Rangers have found the step up to their first taste of Champions League football in 12 years unforgiving.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men have been put to the sword in conceding seven goals to Ajax and Napoli without reply in their opening two games in Group A.
“If you look at all the squads we’re facing now, look at Ajax, they sold (players) for over £200m. Liverpool as well,” said Van Bronckhorst.
“For us to compete with them it’s too much to ask.”