13 months ago, I penned an article questioning whether Luis Suarez was bedding into life at Barcelona or not. He got off to a slow start to life in Catalonia and he had intermittently been playing on the right wing where he looked cumbersome and uncomfortable. At the time he had mustered a paltry 2 goals from 11 La Liga games and was beginning to be left on the bench. My question was whether the rigidity of Barcelona’s system and the deference that he would have to show to Messi would hinder him like it did with Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Messi’s striking colleagues at international level. My suggestion was that Suarez had the ability and adaptability to become attuned to Messi’s wavelength but it would require some adjustments to his all-action, buccaneering style of play.
Just over a year later, it appears that Luis Suarez has been secretly reading Bespoke because he seems to have taken my advice with aplomb. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s perhaps the most dangerous player in the world right now and only Robert Lewandowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Gonzalo Higuain have been as lethal in the European leagues so far this season. Suarez has 41 goals so far and while it is remarkable that he’s scored such an obscene amount and it’s only February, it’s even more bewildering when you look at just exactly how he’s playing and scoring these days.
It’s a far cry from his time at Liverpool, where he seemed to have the ability to occupy all attacking positions simultaneously. Suarez seemed to be running the channels down the right, cutting in from the left, orchestrating play from deep and hovering on the shoulder of the last man. At Barcelona there is still a freedom and fluidity to his game as evidenced by his presence on the left wing for Barca’s first goal against Arsenal but his main theatre is undoubtedly the penalty area these days.
What is notable is that rather than dulling his impact, Suarez has fine tuned his game to do less work but still have maximum output. With the number 9 adorning his shirt, Suarez is very much and out and out centre forward which completes a staggering transition from when he first arrived at Anfield. Suarez came with a reputation for scoring bags of goals in Holland but in England he was initially more of a trickster, slaloming through defences and wreaking havoc, but not the most reliable of finishers. A case in point would be Dirk Kuyt’s hat-trick vs. Manchester United where Kuyt grabbed the goals but the undoubted star of the show was Suarez.
Towards the end of his time at Liverpool, he developed the finishing touch to go with his supreme talent, but you still wouldn’t have thought of Suarez as the classic number 9 in the mold of a Lewandowski or a Higuain. At Barcelona, he has modified his game from the all-action style that saw him become the Premier League’s best player and exchanged expression for efficiency. Statistically, the change has been evident too, as the following data on Suarez’s dribbling and shooting from whoscored.com shows.
Since he’s moved to Barcelona, Suarez attempts less than 50% of the dribbles that he did at Liverpool, only embarking on roughly 3 a match. There are a number of reasons for this; firstly, at Barcelona, possession is cherished and the number of unsuccessful dribbles he attempted at Liverpool wouldn’t go down so well in Catalonia. It’s not that dribbling is expressly forbidden, it’s just that the likes of Neymar and Messi are significantly better so Suarez is less inclined to try it. Secondly, there is the fact he’s playing with better players means that he doesn’t have to do it all himself. Suarez suggested this himself in his interview with Jamie Carragher, stating “I’d have to say I enjoy myself a lot more, really. I don’t feel so much responsibility as I did in other teams. It felt sometimes at Ajax and Liverpool that it had to be me. Now, every time I go out on to the pitch, I enjoy myself and laugh.”
As well as dribbling less, the other dramatic change in Suarez’s game has been where he shoots from. At Liverpool, he was always willing to have a crack from distance but at Barcelona, he almost never shoots from outside the box, which is not surprising as he spends much more time inside it. Again, this is partially to do with a team philosophy that does not encourage long range shots and also a tweak to his own game in line with his reincarnation as a poacher. Remarkably, he has only scored once from outside the box for Barcelona and he is yet to do it this season, compared to his last season at Liverpool where about 22.5% (7 out of 31) of his goals came from outside the box. He’s also on course to score the most amount of goals from inside the 6 yard box in a season since he left Holland.
So by curbing some of his natural instincts and playing a slightly more static, traditional centre forward role, Suarez has managed to cut out a lot of the inefficiencies in his game and focus largely on being in the right place at the right time. Of course, his dribbling ability comes massively in handy for working space in the box, but the days of slaloming runs from inside his own half and having a pop from 35 yards are probably over. Interestingly, Suarez is not the only former Premier League mega star to have made such a transition. Looking at Cristiano Ronaldo’s dribbles and shots from outside the box per match, both have plummeted since he first joined Real Madrid.
To me, it indicates that despite the plethora of stars such as Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and Suarez, football at the very top echelons is definitely more of a team game than a case of brilliant individuals being able to do what they want. Suarez and Ronaldo (and even Neymar and Gareth Bale to an extent) have had to shed some of their more selfish, individualistic tendencies in order to move to the next level. It might sound odd given an enduring image of Ronaldo is him enraged by his team mates scoring instead of him which doesn’t exactly scream team player, however at Real Madrid he’s definitely become more of a wide forward focused on purely finishing moves rather than the winger he was at Manchester United. Thankfully, these players are still fantastic to watch, meaning that they haven’t had to necessarily sacrifice flair for functionality.