At times in the first half of this thrilling, occasionally messy Premier League fixture, there was a sense of two games taking place simultaneously. In the foreground the feature presentation: a tight, bruising affair, and a meeting of two depleted teams who have spent much of the season trying to bolt their own wheels back on while speeding through the weekly chicanes. A 2-1 victory here was Liverpool’s first away league win this season.
Behind this was the other game, the one taking place in the Darwin Núñez universe. This was a looser, chancier affair, a place where the physical rules are a little more vague but which seemed, at times, to bleed through into the real world, to exist alongside it.
It was at these moments, drifting through into the Núñez-verse, that Liverpool looked most energised. Mainly Núñez was just great fun to watch during his 86 minutes on the pitch, which included one assist, a twanged crossbar, endless sprints, moments of exhilaration and moments of oddity.
It is necessary to see Núñez in the flesh to really get his energy. He is a magnificent spectacle, all upright grace, loose shoulders, lithe power. Núñez is 6ft 5in. Núñez is the second-fastest clocked player in the league, just behind Anthony Gordon. When he moves he just looks a pedigree human. Some players look like a natural on the ball. Thiago Alcântara appears to have been born on the half-turn. Núñez conveys this with his movements, the easy acceleration, the hunger for the ball, with which he has a passionate, if slightly on-off, relationship with – a kind of rom-com chemistry.
Here he carried the ball with purpose at times, finding space down Spurs’ right side in the first half. Núñez doesn’t really dribble. He passes to himself, runs, catches up, the ball just an addendum to his splendid athleticism, snagging it under his hooves, hauling it back in, like watching a stallion trampling a beachball.
But he did all of this to good effect in the game’s decisive period, when Mo Salah scored both Liverpool goals, each brutally sharp finishes. Salah has nine in his past eight games now, with goals against Spurs, Napoli, Ajax and Manchester City in that run. He has a month’s rest coming up, and looks ready to scoot through those final 24 games. If Salah stays fit it will be very hard to keep Liverpool out of the top four.
Here there was also a sense of something sparking with Núñez, with Roberto Firmino well cast as the straight man in the centre. The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was a lovely, crisp, luminous spectacle at kick-off. And Núñez was away in the third minute, haring down his outside left channel on to a fine pass from Andy Robertson and smashing a shot first time that Hugo Lloris palmed away.
For all his occasionally random qualities Núñez is also relentless. At one point he just ran past Eric Dier to the byline, sweeping the ball along in a wide arc, as though dragging it on a piece of string, but leaving Dier for dead all the same. A little later Rodrigo Bentancur tried to jockey him out of his stride and Núñez quivered his back muscles and left him literally face down in the turf. At times like this there is a vague sense of some future-engineered Andy Carroll, the Carroll T200,with added speed and grace, but still, at his heart, that old snorting fury.
Núñez also helped make the opening goal from that left side. Firmino came deep and played a lovely little flighted dink out to Robertson. His pass inside found Núñez, who had time to look up and see Salah free to his right. The pass was just the right weight for Salah to flip it up and bury it low and hard into the corner.
There were more moments down his left flank in that half, most notably on 32 minutes as Trent Alexander-Arnold skimmed a hard, flat pass that Núñez took in his stride then lost in a bumbling, shinned mess, the ball transformed suddenly into a hard boiled egg covered in lard.
Liverpool’s second goal came from a defensive black swan event. Dier skimmed an attempted headed pass-back off his shoulder into the path of Salah. The finish was beautifully lifted over Lloris as he dived at Salah’s feet.
Spurs were much better in the second half. Antonio Conte had picked a team that looked on paper like Spurs in their final iteration, basically Harry Kane plus some defenders. The attacking players Conte trusts are unfit. Bryan Gil in amphetamine-crazed puppy mode is only a last-ditch option right now. But Spurs came back hard at the start of the second half, and eventually Dejan Kulusevski’s pass put Kane in on goal for a lovely finish into the far corner.
Liverpool held on a little, but Jürgen Klopp will be heartened by the energy of that first half, when Thiago and Fabinho offered control. The win leaves Liverpool seven points off fourth and, above all, as football’s winter trip to Narnia looms, with an attack that may just be able evolve, on the hoof, into something else.