Note: This piece should have been published after the Valencia v Barcelona match at the Mestalla on 26 November 2017, so should be read in that context.
I recall watching Fernando Torres on his Chelsea debut, shaking my head as he flailed in the rain at the Bridge, willing his body, his instincts to catch up to his much-changed environment. Chelsea lost on the day and since then, Fernando Torres, formerly one of the most (if not the most) feared strikers in the world has been losing. He went on to score 1 goal in 18 games across the rest of that campaign. Bar one season with Chelsea, he has lost his battle for fitness, for form, for goals.
Andriiy Shevchenko moved to Chelsea in the summer of 2006, after guiding Ukraine to the World Cup quarter-finals on their maiden visit to the World Cup. At the time, his reputation was unimpeachable – over 7 years at Milan, he had secured his place in the pantheon of great European strikers. When he scored on his debut, in defeat to Liverpool in the Community Shield, England expected the most; instead, we got the least of Shevchenko.
In both foregoing scenarios, we saw irrepressible scorers’ reputations disintegrate so rapidly, the memory of what they were became a mirage; there, then not. Recency bias is a thing, and flailing footballers suffer most from it. You are only as good as your last game. Watching Luis Suarez this season, it’s easy to forget he scored nearly 60 goals last season. As he strains every sinew in his 30-year-old body to get on the end of a Lionel Messi, he’s pulled up for offside. Messi shrugs his shoulders, you want to break something – that was the 4th, 5th (?) time today. All eyes were on the Mestalla last Sunday as 1st met 2nd – it was late November and no, it was not a Clasico. Valencia, without the stresses of European football and inspired by new manager, Marcelino, have played an ebullient and energiser-bunny style of football. Led by the hard running, hard pressing Goncalo Guedes, the team was poised to test Barcelona. Yet, as the first half unfolded, the blaugranes seized control of the game, suffocating Valencia with their revived brand of possession and pressing. With renewed emphasis on midfield play under Valverde, the away side sparkled in the 1st half, although without creating any clear-cut chances.
Spotted throughout the match was Suarez, miscontrolling passes, grimacing as he willed his body to reach passes he was always offside for, swearing at linesmen as they did their job and he failed to do his. He had two presentable chances – one after a Jose Gaya attempted recovering clearance ricocheted off Suarez’s face and left him through on goal, the other a sharp turn and volley following a long ball. In the end, Jordi Alba was the one to a) stay onside (well onside, in fact), (b) make the run and (c) finish immaculately off an equally immaculate Messi pass. A friend, watching the game elsewhere, WhatsApped me after the game – “Bro, I see what you were saying about Suarez”. So, what had I been saying about Suarez? Here it goes:
“Luis Suarez may just be finished.”
Scandalous? Preposterous? Maybe not. I raise you Shevchenko and Torres as precedent, elite strikers that fell off so fast, you had to rub your eyes and watch YouTube highlights to find out if they ever really existed in any form other than fluffing gimmes for a living.
For a long time, I have agonised over Luis Suarez’s relentless ability to shock in both extremes. His catalogue of incredible goals rivals any striker in football over the last two decades (whisper it, but maybe in history). On the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to find a striker that misses as many head-scratching “How the FUCK did he miss that” opportunities as he does EVEN when he’s in stellar form. That capacity for the sublime and ridiculous has always been a part of the Suarez package – and for a time, it has worked totally fine for Barcelona. His inconsistency in the rhythm and flow of the game is much-documented although surprisingly not as widely acknowledged as it should be. Initially, after moving to Barcelona, his regularly awry touch, his haphazard dribbling and messy passing were brought into sharp focus. This was particularly the case as he struggled initially in Luis Enrique’s confused not-yet-fully-formed system that placed Messi as a false 9 and Suarez as a right winger. As Enrique committed to moving the axis of team activity to the front 3, play became more direct – one benefit for Suarez. The ultimate move was Messi suggesting he play centrally. Suarez had never been a winger and in a team with technical demands such as Barcelona’s, his inadequacies were always highlighted when out of position. Played centrally, particularly with Neymar and Messi dribbling and creating from wide positions, he had one job – put pressure on defenders and score. Over his first three years at Barcelona, he did that with aplomb. Then, this summer, he moved to a new team.
Less is more, more is less
One day, it is possible that Neymar’s departure from Barcelona will come to be seen as the pivotal moment in the precipitous fall of Luis Suarez. Or one of the pivotal moments (his injury during pre-season – will come to that later – being another). With Neymar gone, Barcelona lost their Messi insurance policy for days the Flea decides to chill. They also lost a huge part of their verticality. The signing of Ousmane Dembele was meant to resolve that problem but he quickly got injured. Throw in the appointment of Ernesto Valverde, a pragmatist like Luis Enrique, but in a very different player-attribute environment, and you had the makings of a new team. If Valverde ever planned to continue direct football at Barcelona, losing Dembele to injury stripped him of that option. Therefore, re-circling the side towards its midfield made sense, restoring control through possession, rigid structure and disciplined pressing. And some players have thrived. Jordi Alba is having a stellar season – one of his best in years – linking up with Messi and providing thrust from left back. Sergio Busquets, with the muscle of Paulinho next to him, reduced spaces between the lines and more company in midfield, is back to his short-passing, faint-inducing feinting best self.
On the other hand, though, no player has suffered quite like Suarez. Before now, his worst moments at Barcelona, in terms of goals and form in general, came at the start of his career at the Nou Camp – a similar situation is repeating itself with an accompaniment of exacerbating factors. With Neymar gone, no Dembele, and a lacking-in-confidence Gerard Deulofeu not providing useful support, Suarez has been required to do more this season. To begin with, he’s averaging nearly 6 more passes per game than he did last season, however he’s averaging fewer key passes than he has at any other point in his Barcelona career (his standard square ball to Neymar isn’t an option anymore). As he spends more time in possession, he’s also being dispossessed more times than before and is losing the ball more often to poor touches. And he’s still required to run channels, press even harder, and work both centre backs (without the twin distractions of Messi and Neymar). This is not Liverpool Luis Suarez, 26 years young, assisting, scoring, cooking, cleaning and basically doing all jobs, both menial and significant, at Anfield. At his age, and in this much-changed team, doing more has meant far less from Suarez. Barcelona has also never been his team – it’s style of play has never been tuned specifically to bring out the best in him. Where he excelled, it came as a by-product of getting others (Messi and Neymar) playing their best.
Take the first few weeks of the season, with the Juventus game a perfect example. As Lionel Messi ran rampant, re-enacting his false 9 glory days, Suarez predominantly played off the left wing, reprising a sort of David Villa role. He tried to create, he tried to make diagonal runs inside and generally was required to be more involved in possession play. He was shown up. Okay, so maybe he was played out of possession and struggled? Nope! As Valverde has gradually settled on a very loose 4-4-2, with Messi and Suarez as the front 2, Suarez has struggled even more. With Messi dropping deep into midfield to partake in the midfield carousel, Suarez has been left to provide a function for which, but two seasons ago, he had two (ability-wise, infinitely better) co-conspirators. As is often the case now, Valverde lines up his side with no wide midfielders which means less vertical penetration and less worry for opposition from wingers. Consequently, Suarez’s space has become constricted. Defences know they only have to track one runner in attack. And while the ball pings about in midfield, he remains the old Suarez – making runs and making a nuisance of himself. Except the runs are increasingly mistimed as he becomes a nuisance to his teammates. Even when he broke his scoring drought recently with a brace against Leganes, there were heavy hints of fortune in both goals that suggested they came about less by design and more by force of presence.
However, there’s more. But let’s recap to see where we are.
- His game has always been painfully inconsistent.
- He is being asked to play a new role.
- He is effectively playing in a new team.
- He is 30 years old.
Finally, if it doesn’t start with injury, injury never makes it better.
Both Shevchenko and Torres signed for Chelsea when both were half-fit/injured. The Ukrainian had rushed his recovery from a knee injury to be ready for Ukraine’s world cup campaign, while Torres, no stranger to hamstring injuries throughout his ‘scoring years’, was beset by numerous injuries (hamstring, knee, groin) in the lead up to the 2010 world cup, and, later, his move to Chelsea.
After initially being ruled out for 4-5 weeks with a knee injury picked up in the 2nd leg of the Spanish Super Cup, Suarez was declared fit to play for Uruguay not 2 weeks after. In reality, he was never fit – instead, the pressures of having to qualify for the world cup meant that national team and player suspended reason and did what they thought they had to do to qualify. The consequences of that decision may stay with Suarez for the rest of his career. Returning to a Barcelona having to compensate for the loss of Neymar has meant that, more now than ever before, Suarez’s presence in the team is invaluable. He could do with an extended rest and may get it over the Christmas break, but until now, he’s laboured along. For a player whose game has never been about the consistency of his touch and imagination, playing below peak condition only exacerbates deficiencies. History tends to repeat itself because the effects of age never really change – you lose a step, others catch on to your tricks and you start to look ordinary again. As Suarez enters his thirties, he’ll have to contend with Father Time. Meanwhile, Barcelona, like Chelsea before them, must reckon with inevitability of a star in decline.
 Ability to transition up the pitch at speed