The inevitable decline of Luiz Suarez

In typical Barça fashion, they started the defence of their title in a commanding 3-0 win over Alavés. The Basque club did everything in their power to prevent the Catalan giants from scoring. And it worked for the most part. They kept Lionel Messi and Co. at bay till the hour mark. Alavés hardly say the ball during this spell and had boxed themselves in their own half – conceding over 70% of the possession. The floodgates opened from here. Lionel Messi was announced as the Barcelona captain during the preseason and he opened his account with a sublime free kick. His clinical strike under the wall led him to become the first player in La Liga history to score in 15 consecutive seasons. This was also Barcelona’s 6000th goal in La Liga. Philippe Coutinho came on as a half-time substitute and scored their second of the match with a quality solo effort. Lionel Messi wrapped up Barça’s opening game in the 94th minute to complete his brace. Barcelona will be difficult to unseat and look to win their eight domestic league title in eleven seasons. If there is a point of concern for them, it lies with Luis Suarez.

The Uruguayan striker did squander a number of half chances during their game. His lethargic approach since he returned back to his club side during the preseason is a point on concern. There are logical reasons to be apprehensive about his start to this season. He had a stifling start to the 2017-18 season which included a five-game streak where he simply could not score. Barcelona have tried to look for a long-term replacement for their Number 9. Had they made a more concerted effort to recruit Antoine Griezmann, the Blaugrana would have had their perfect forward. 

Ernesto Valverde is not at all concerned about Suarez’s sluggish start to the season. And why should he be worried? This would not be the first time that the Salto native has had a slow start to the season before finishing strongly. His intangible qualities of competiveness and a relentless desire to score are still within him. Nevertheless, he heavily relies on his athleticism. His rugged style of play does not translate well with age. The now 31 year-old Suarez has seen a steady decline in the number of goals scored domestically. He scored 40 goals during the 2015-16 season and became the sole player in the past decade to overthrow Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the Pichichi (let’s not forget that he also scored 59 goals for the seasons and won the European Golden Shoe). He has since scored 29 and 25 goals in his past two La Liga season. Still a productive player, though not quite as clinical.  

His ability to score goals on the European stage is even more concerning. And his record is exacerbated more by the fact that their El Clásico rivals – Real Madrid – have won three straight Champions League title. Suarez has scored a combined four goals in Barcelona’s past two Champions League’s campaigns. Compare that to Cristiano Ronaldo who has topped the goal scoring charts for the past two seasons with 12 and 15 goals. Hell, every striker to make it out of the group stages over the past two seasons has scored more than Suarez. It is obvious to see that he has undergone a physical decline. During his Liverpool days he was a more dynamic player who was willing to play wide before cutting inside to the final third. In younger days when he first broke into the European scene with Ajax, we saw more of the same where he dominated vast areas of the pitch. Since joining Barcelona, we’ve seen him become more stationary as he transitions to poacher inside the box.  

Age is certainly starting to wear him down. Suarez will turn 32 this coming January with his best days well behind him. He has yet to have a major injury since moving to Spain and this has certainly helped his fantastic run with Barcelona. Nevertheless, his poor start to the season is looking worse than ever. It was hard to watch him during the Spanish Super Cup. His legs looked like they were weighing him down and he simply looked him he was not able to string a couple of successful passes together. Suarez will get better as the season progresses but playing into form will get harder and harder with each season from here on out.

More than age, it his is physical frame that might hamper his game. He has somewhat of a stocky build and his electric pace can be surprising to some. On the other hand, his reliance on an incredible first step to beat defenders will deteriorate at a rate that is faster when compared to the leaner forwards. The fact that he had routinely played through injury is another point of concern. While it shows that Suarez has the heart of the lion and is the ultimate competitor, a banged up body will eventually get the better of him. Valverde may even need to employ a rotation strategy for this main striker. Jerry Sloan applied this to an aging John Stockton and he played for the Utah Jazz till he was 40. In his two-and-half-years with Los Blancos, Zinedine Zidane employed the same with Ronaldo and it has undoubtedly prolonged his career and led him to excel in high leverage games. Suarez does not need to play every game of the season. Barcelona are more than capable of beating the likes of Levante and Leganes with Suarez resting. It will give Munir and Ousmane Dembele a good run of game to prove themselves while Suarez can save himself for the bigger games of the season.

Barcelona and Ernesto Valverde have to everything they can to prolong his career. A post-Suarez future is looming.  The unfortunate problem for the club at this point in time is at no other forward has same chemistry with Messi. Suarez has an excellent understanding with the now Barça captain. The pair seamlessly work together and always find themselves on the same page. Coutinho often occupies the same space as Messi. Malcolm and Munir are simply too young to have the burden of leading the Blaugrana frontline. Dembele is in the process of convincing Valverde that he is a bona fide starter in his system. The only known quantity is Paco Alcácer and he is virtually on his way out of the club after a dreadful run with them so far. Suarez may have been the best strike partner that Lionel Messi has ever had. The Uruguayan striker has to be commended for his ability to adapt to Messi while still being able to showcase his individual talent. Zlatan Ibrahimović, Samuel Eto’o, David Villa, and Thierry Henry are all generational players in their own rights. Unfortunately, the one thing they all have in common is a relative failure to fully adjust to Messi. Suarez joined the Catalan giants after being the focal point with Ajax and Liverpool. His malleability and innate intelligence to read the movements and modus operandi of Lionel Messi is a rare skill. It is not easy to do. Stellar players have failed in an area that he has flourished in.  

If there is anything that we have learnt from the World Cup, it is that Messi had evolved into a playmaker who prospers with freedom. And his require a focal point who can make sharp runs ahead of him. Suarez is the only player who is capable of being that man. And even then, this does not mean that he in untouchable. Despite everything we are led to believe about the closeness and friendship between the two, there is little evidence to suggest that Lionel Messi will have his back should Suarez be dropped or if Josep Maria Bartomeu decided to sell him. Ronaldinho and Deco were Messi’s closest friends during the beginning of his career. Yet, when Pep Guardiola became the first team coach, the two legendary players were pushed aside for the younger Argentinian even though they both had plenty to offer.

A natural decline has been in the process for two years now. There is no denying that and his numbers will only drop off from here. Though, if he are to learn anything from this generation of players is that they cannot be doubted even if they are end up on the wrong side of 30.  

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