What to do about the tricky Luis Suarez headache for Barcelona

Leo Messi sets the play in motion from the half way line inside the centre circle. He carries the ball with him a couple of yards and looks up to find Sergi Roberto bursting into the empty space left behind the Málaga defence, La Liga’s only winless side totally imbalanced in their search for a late goal to pull themselves back into the game.

Roberto uses his fresh legs and athleticism to run into the box and square the ball to Luis Surez despite falling down from a nudge from Málaga’s Luis Hernández. For the veteran Uruguayan striker, this type of chance is his bread and butter. The pass from Sergi Roberto opened the goal up for his teammate and made it somewhere between a one-on-one and an open goal to shoot at.

But what happened next is a good example of a microcosm of Luis Suarez’s season – he managed to work hard and extended himself, got into the optimal position to receive an assist, but ultimately fluffed the chance and dragged it wide.

Before this, Suarez also missed another good opportunity at a more important earlier stage of the match. His sitter was punished with an almost immediate substitution for the even more off-form Paco Alcacer.

El Pistolero has been out of form for Barcelona this season, with only three goals scored in 11 matches played for Barca all season. Those numbers don’t even begin to tell the story of chances missed or frustration caused to fans and teammates alike.

A quick look at Suarez’s three league goals this season also tells its own story. His first came in added time of a 5-0 drubbing of local rivals Espanyol, and his second was also the last of the game in a 3-0 win over Girona. His third was his only meaningful goal this season to date – the late equaliser in the Wanda stadium against Atletico Madrid to earn his side a point and maintain their unbeaten streak. That game away to Atleti is perhaps the anomaly of Suarez’s season, where particularly in the second half he looked dangerous, raising his level for the big ocassion.

Barca coach Ernesto Valverde responded to Suarez’s poor form following the 2-0 victory over bottom-side Málaga in a slightly bizarre manner by saying; “The more chances Suarez misses, the better.” What he meant by this was he was happy with how many good positions his striker was getting himself into, insinuating that the goals will naturally follow.

“It is the third game he has played in six days, he is always having chances.” Valverde admitted the Uruguayan wasn’t happy with being hauled off the pitch following his missed sitter, but said there was no problem.

Suarez is ambitious and he doesn’t like to be substituted. Everybody wants to be an undisputed starter all the time, I don’t see any problem.

The ex-Liverpool striker also counts two assists to his name so far for the season – one rather unimportant one, and one very important one. The important one came with a one-touch layoff to Leo Messi for the Argentine to score his first career goal on Gianluigi Buffon in the Champions League 3-0 win over Juventus. The unimportant one came for the third goal in the surreal empty Camp Nou in the 3-0 win over Las Palmas.

When one third of one of the most fearsome attacking tridents in football history upped sticks to Paris in the summer, the last thing cúles would have wanted to see is another third of that trident failing and disappearing.

Neymar’s departure means there’s now less attacking power moving towards the opposition goal, and Suarez is being left to pick up some extra responsibility in the first line of attack, especially with Messi now enjoying life a lot more in a deeper role.

Last season, Suarez occupied the central position in a front three, but now cuts a lonely figure as Barcelona’s sole fixed point of attack, while Messi brings the play to him from deeper positions. He is often joined on the right flank by one of Gerard Deulofeu, Andre Gomes, Denis Suarez, and sometimes earlier in the season by Aleix Vidal or Sergi Roberto, but whoever plays in the “Ousmane Dembélé role” is also pinned down with defensive duties when without the ball, creating more isolation for Suarez.

Isolation is one possible reason as to Suarez’s decline, but injury could be another. In the Super Cup second leg vs Real Madrid, the striker had to leave the field with a knock to his right knee and was said to be out of action for around five weeks. Instead, he conspicuously missed only two La Liga matches and returned to the field with the Uruguay national team just two weeks later as they looked to seal their passage to the World Cup finals in Russia 2018.

While he was obviously passed fit to play by the medical staff at club and country, Suarez just hasn’t looked nearly as sharp this year as last year. Should Ernesto Valverde take him out of the team and give Paco Alcacer some game time to bring him up to speed in the Barcelona team? Arguably yes, minutes for the former Valencia man could help him find a rhythm in this Barca team, but there’s a lot of reason to not tinker with the lineup.

For one, the assist to Messi in that huge Champions League clash with Juve showed that even when there’s a bigger distance between them on the pitch, the pair still know each other’s games so well that they can link up beautifully when Messi charges up the field.

In that play, Suarez, with his back to goal, knew exactly what Messi was planning seconds before he received the ball. A perfectly weighted one-touch layoff busted the Old Lady’s defence wide open to let the Argentine genius find the far corner of the net.

Messi and Suarez are so well in-sync together that even playing a completely out-of-form Suarez has led to one of Barca’s best starts to a season in many years. If there’s any lingering niggles in his knee, Valverde should pick the right moments to rest him – like maybe when playing against the bottom club who have only earned one point all season. If there are no niggles, allow him to continue as he is and find his goalscoring rhythm in this new Barca shape.

And also…

For the first time since the Spanish Super Cup, Real Madrid have won a game with comfort at the Santiago Bernabéu, beating Eibar 3-0 and having no problems in doing so.

The best defense in La Liga? Atletico Madrid? Valencia? Table-toppers Barca? It’s actually Leganés! (Okay, yes, they do share this record with Barca). The Cucumber-growers have conceded a meagre three goals all season, just like the Catalans. In only their second-ever season in La Liga, only local rivals and newly promoted Getafe, and struggling Eibar have found the net against them. Even more remarkably, tiny Leganés are sitting 5th in the table! Amazing for a club of their stature.

We told you last week Valencia were great and Sevilla were deceptively not as good as what their league position may have suggested. They played over the weekend, and the impressive Valencia thumped the Andalusians 4-0.

Week 8 Goal of the Week

Gonçalo Guedes to open the scoring right before half time against Sevilla. What a player he’s turning out to be.

Week 8 Player of the Week

Gonçalo Guedes again. Two goals and an assist in one of the best performances from any player this year. The 20-year-old Portuguese winger is on loan from PSG this year, and he’ll either have a big say in what one of the richest teams in the world do next season, or will go to a top level club for huge money. Remember the name.


La Liga week 8 results in full

Levante 1Getafe, Real Betis 2Alaves, Valencia 4Sevilla, Barcelona 2Malaga, Villarreal 4Las Palmas, Celta Vigo 0Atletico Madrid, Leganes 1Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid 3Eibar, Real Sociedad 1Espanyol, Deportivo La Coruna 1Girona

The Author

Cillian Shields

Cillian Shields is an Irish football writer currently living in Barcelona, focusing on Spain's La Liga. Interests include the intersection of politics and football, football history, and smaller, humble teams with noisy, boisterous fans.

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