Wednesday 22 July 2015 15:22, UK
After a difficult start to life at Barcelona, Nick Wright examines how Luis Suarez has adapted his game to become a key player at the Nou Camp…
The sight of Luis Suarez holding his head in his hands became a familiar one for Barcelona in the first half of the season. The man whose devastating scoring feats took Liverpool agonisingly close to the title in his final year in England looked a shadow of his usual self as chances went begging and confidence deserted him following his £65million move to the Nou Camp.
The Uruguayan’s start in Spain was delayed as he served a four-month ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini, and he had to wait a further eight La Liga appearances for his first goal after donning the Barcelona shirt for the first time in their 3-1 Clasico defeat to Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in October.
By the end of 2014, Suarez had only netted three times in 11 appearances in all competitions. The 28-year-old appeared to be overawed by his new surroundings, a view which was supported by former Barcelona defender Albert Ferrer on Revista de la Liga in January.
“Luiz Suarez is a bit nervous of his situation,” said Ferrer. “I think he has realised that he’s come from a team where he was the star and he’s not anymore, so he has to cope with that. He’s realising that Barcelona play very accurate passes in the final third which are very quick and with precision. He is trying to do the same instead of having a bit of calmness. He needs some more time to settle down to do things better.”
Suarez acknowledged the lack of goals himself in an interview with Barcelona’s official website. “I’m not scoring much at the moment, but I’m sure that with help from my colleagues, the goals will come,” he said.
Sure enough, Suarez soon rediscovered his ruthless streak in front of goal. The former Ajax striker was Europe’s Golden Shoe winner for his tally of 31 in 2013/14, and he has thrived since moving into a central role for Barcelona. Since February he has scored 19 in 25 appearances, including braces against Manchester City and Paris St Germain and a brilliant winner against Real Madrid at the Nou Camp.
But Suarez’s goals only tell part of the story for a player who has dramatically adjusted his game to suit Barcelona. Rather than being their principle goal threat, Suarez has assumed the role of provider.
The stats show just how much he has curbed his natural instincts to go it solo. Suarez scored 14.5 per cent of Barcelona’s league goals in 2014/15 compared to 30.4 per cent of Liverpool’s last year, while he averaged 2.8 shots per game compared to 5.5 for the Reds. That second statistic is all the more surprising considering just how much time Barcelona spend on the attack, but this is the new, selfless Suarez.
“At the moment I feel that I am helping the team with goals and assists but as long as the team is doing well then I am happy as well,” he said in April. “It is not important who scores as long as the team progresses.”
Those comments rather sum up Suarez 2.0. At Liverpool it usually fell to him to score, which has been highlighted by their struggles this season, but at Barcelona his principle task is to bring the best out of Lionel Messi and Neymar – and he has excelled in that regard. His total of 24 goals is impressive in itself, but Messi and Neymar’s combined tally of 96 speaks even more loudly of his success.
“As a forward he needs goals, but we've always been happy with his attitude and displays,” said Barcelona manager Luis Enrique in March. “He is not just a typical centre-forward, he can join in the play with his team-mates, read the moves and the play. He also has physical presence and character which are very useful for us.”
Suarez’s attributes are not lost on Messi, who has hit 58 goals alongside the Uruguayan compared to 41 in 2013/14. “His touch, vision, his movement, his instinctive play, are incredible,” the Argentine said this week.
Suarez has contributed 17 assists in La Liga and Champions League games this season, a total only bettered by Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Kevin de Bruyne and Cristiano Ronaldo. That is all the more impressive when considering he missed the first 11 games of the season through suspension.
He added four more assists to his total in the Copa del Rey, one of which came for Neymar’s goal in Saturday’s 3-1 win in the final against Athletic Bilbao. It is practically unthinkable that he might have passed up an opportunity to shoot when one-on-one during his Liverpool days, but he now takes just as much satisfaction from teeing up a team-mate for an open goal.
As well as adapting his playing style on the pitch, Suarez’s discipline no longer appears to be an issue. The striker’s career has been dogged by controversy and unsavoury incidents, but he has kept a low profile in Spain and appears to be a reformed character.
In terms of performances, few players are better-placed than Andres Iniesta to judge where Barcelona’s current front three rank in the club’s recent history. “I have been lucky to play behind some of the greatest strikers at this club and in the world,” said the 31-year-old, who made his first team debut in 2002.
“Having those three, there’s no doubt, it’s something you can’t compare with. I played with [Thierry] Henry, [Samuel] Eto’o – great strikers – but let’s say right now the threesome we have now are unique.”
Messi and Neymar certainly enjoy greater status than Suarez at Barcelona, but it is his arrival that has knitted them together as a unit to such devastating effect, and their combined total of 120 goals is the highest ever for an attacking trio.
Saturday’s Champions League final against Juventus could provide their toughest test yet, but with a little help from Suarez, Barcelona have a great chance to get their hands on their third trophy this season.
Juventus v Barcelona: watch the Champions League final live on Sky Sports 1 HD from 6pm on Saturday