Marcelino Núñez Finding His Place at Norwich

Scoring his fifth goal for the club, and third directly from a free-kick, Marcelino Núñez joined a long list of Norwich City players who have scored the winning goal in the East Anglian derby. From a set piece, it was a familiar type of goal, however, this season has seen the Chilean develop and prove himself to be more than just a set-piece specialist.  


A well-rounded, deep lying central midfielder, Núñez is capable of breaking up opposition play before launching offensive attacks. And whilst much attention on Norwich players has been focused on Jonathan Rowe, Josh Sargent and Gabriel Sara, it is Núñez who is proving himself as a crucial component and a reason for the Canaries’ upturn in form as they push towards promotion.


In fact, if the Championship table was to begin from when he became a regular starter this 2023/24 season, the beginning of December, the Canaries would be sitting in second place. Instead, though, they have finished the campaign in sixth place, edging Hull City to the final playoff spot by six points. After sharing the spoils in a 0-0 draw against Leeds, Norwich find themselves within 90 minutes of the promotion final, and they’ll be counting on Núñez as they look to return to the top-flight.



Although, this importance he now has within the squad has not always been the case. Since signing in the summer of 2022 from Universidad Católica for an undisclosed fee, thought to be around £3-3.5m, the Chilean has spent much of his time fighting for a place in the Norwich squad. Subjected to substitute cameos and falling victim to injuries, a large chunk of Núñez’s time in England has seen him deployed in a variety of positions with sporadic gametime.


This is despite him being used with immediate effect during the first few weeks of his initial season at the club. Head coach Dean Smith appeared very eager to utilise his talent. He was brought into the side and, in a 4-3-3 formation, assigned the role of a deep lying playmaker.


From the off he was comfortable on the ball and displayed confidence when given space. However, like so many players new to the English Championship, the physicality and high pressing nature of most sides saw him come unstuck on occasion.


It was clear that he would need a short while, at least, to settle in and build up strength, anticipation and ability to move the ball on quicker. Though, this was neither a surprise nor a shock. At the age of just 22 and playing football for the first time outside of his native Chile, it was understandable that he’d need some time.



However, the way in which Norwich dealt with this was far from ideal and potentially hindered Núñez’s path more than aided. As the first half of the season progressed and Smith tweaked tactics and formations, Núñez was sidelined. Minutes instantly became limited and so the chance to shine, to prove himself, became tougher to achieve.


This was despite the new formation being a narrow one in which as many midfielders as possible were crammed into the side. Combine this with poor results and supporter disgruntlement, it became a tough and more pressurised environment for Núñez to perform.


As results declined through 22/23 and Dean Smith was relieved of his duties, it was still difficult for the midfielder to establish himself. New head coach David Wagner went through constant changes of formations and tactics, mostly trying to squeeze in both Teemu Pukki and Josh Sargent.


This had a larger effect on the squad, with players unsure of which position they would be playing from one week to the next. For Núñez himself, he was tried in a deeper midfield role, a left midfielder position away at Bristol City before being tested as a sole attacking midfielder.



It was this final position that saw Núñez then make an impact. Two goals and an assist in a 3-1 victory over Birmingham City; it looked as though he had finally found his position. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. A minor injury saw him out of action for three games and by the time he returned, Norwich’s form had slumped, the playoffs were out of contention and confidence was low. He was falling victim to more bad luck.


And so his first season at the East Anglian side was mixed. A combination of injuries and different managers unsure how to accommodate him into a side, where there was so much pressure to play two strikers, hindered his early development and led to a lack of game time exposure. Although, as the summer transfer window of 2023 saw much movement take place, there was a good chance that the Chilean would be more involved during his second season.


Alas, he was no more involved at the beginning of the new season, featuring only with cameos from off the bench before an injury picked up on international duty saw him ruled out for a little over a month and being absent from seven matches. Similar themes from his first season were beginning to reappear.


Fortunately, things began to change. Since his return from injury, and a wider injury problem at the club that meant Kenny McLean was dropped deeper into a centre back role, Núñez has regularly featured as one of the two holding midfielders in Norwich’s 4-2-3-1 formation.



Again, it was another position he was being thrown into, but he was finally being granted regular gametime in a fixed position, not worrying about where else on the pitch he could be deployed. This consistency has allowed the Chilean international to visibly grow in confidence, becoming the orchestrator of Norwich attacks and the roaming interceptor when in defence.


In line with being granted more minutes, another improvement has been in his positional play. A fine example of this can be found in the 1-0 away victory over Preston North End. Throughout the game’s entirety, Norwich successfully made twelve tackles, and Núñez made eight of those. Growth in his defensive qualities has seen him thrive in the deeper role and allowed for players such as Sara to not worry so much about their own defensive duties.


His performances have been well received by teammates and supporters. For much of the first half of the season, Norwich’s defensive fragilities were clear to see. There was outcry for a holding, defensive midfielder – one who could close the gap between the defence and the attack-minded midfielders.


Although Núñez is not a defensive minded midfielder by trade, he has quelled these calls by playing in the role and contributing to Norwich’s markedly improved defence. Since his reintroduction into the side as a defensive, deep lying playmaker, in a 2-1 victory away to Bristol City on 3rd December 2023, Norwich have conceded the joint-second fewest goals and rank second in the form table.



Whilst team form like this is rarely down to an individual, Núñez has acted as a solid and reliable base in front of the Norwich back line, breaking up attacks. This can be seen by how he ranks as the midfielder at Norwich with the most number of players tackled per 90 minutes, in addition to most passes blocked per 90. The latter statistic in particular highlights how much his positional play has developed; he is vital for breaking up opposition attacks and shifting the ball into areas of space for full backs Jack Stacey and Sam McCallum to exploit.


When Norwich are in possession, and Núñez is on the ball, he will typically drop into defence to form a wide back three. Here, he controls the game and can dictate both the tempo and style. Whether he decides to hold on to the ball to bait the press, off-load it forwards for Sara to take over or spray it out wide for the marauding full backs, it’s Núñez who the opponent must nullify if they want to stop Norwich attacks early on.  


On a separate note, the Chilean’s mettle has always been evident, but due to lack of gametime and exposure to the English leagues has not until now been allowed to develop. Now receiving regular minutes, his potential is being realised and he has adapted to a traditionally physical and high tempo league.


He remains comfortable on the ball as he was when first arrived, the difference now is that he has the strength to match his ability which has seen him develop into a top-end, Championship midfielder who matches tenacity, vigour and physicality with composure, assuredness and technical ability.   


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The potential he possesses has always been evident for the Chilean national side. Since making his debut in 2021, he has been a regular name in the squad and often in the starting eleven. He’s managed to score five goals for Chile, proving his versatility and how well-rounded he is as a midfielder. It would be fair to say that his most notable goal would be the opener in a friendly against France at the Stade Orange Velodrome. Though the game ended in a 3-2 defeat, it was against a French side fielding world-class players.


Overall, Núñez has developed enormously since he signed for Norwich. Much of this is due to how, this season, he has been given the minutes and exposure required when trying to adapt to a tough and rugged league. His awareness, quick-thinking and speed with feet when on the ball have elevated him to a well-rounded midfielder who is now ready for Premier League football. Norwich supporters will hope that it is them for whom he will be playing in the top-flight. 


By: Thomas Shelton / @tomshelton11

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Nigel French – PA Images