It feels a little weird saying this about a known shithead, but we can't help but appreciate how Luis Suárez's hard work on the pitch is finally resulting in the goals his play has deserved. But even in the face of criticism earlier in the season, as Suárez struggled to mesh perfectly with his new Barcelona teammates, he was still an incredibly valuable part of what's been the world's most deadly attacking force.
As soon as Suárez announced that he would follow up his absurd season at Liverpool by joining Lionel Messi and Neymar in Barcelona, there was pretty much no argument for anyone other than Barça having the strongest forward line on the planet. As soon as everything clicked, the thinking went, we would be in store for something truly special. However, making it click wasn't as simple a proposition as it may have seemed. While Suárez was in some ways the perfect compliment to Messi and Neymar—he creates chances for himself and for others, is uncommonly unselfish, is extremely active in terms of off-ball movement and defensive pressing—he nevertheless was a different kind of player from what Barcelona were used to. Suárez was best for Liverpool when storming forward on the break, careening between any number of defenders and hoping that by the time he reached the penalty box the ball would still be at his feet for him to lash it into the net. This chaotic style was great when it worked, but had a fairly low success rate.
Barcelona—even this forward-dominant, counterattack-friendly version under Luis Enrique—rely a lot more on possession than Liverpool ever did. The ideal Barça player at practically every position is tactically disciplined and safe with the ball. The Blaugranas of recent vintage have tried their best to play safe, measured passes as they made their way into the dangerous areas of the pitch, where Messi would find a way to score himself or ricochet a pass off of a teammate's head or foot and into the goal. Since Messi's ascension to godhood, he's been the major force providing anarchic creativity amid the order of the rest of the side.
This protocol started to shift last season, with the addition of Neymar. Alongside the aging and oft-injured David Villa, the industrious but staid play of Pedro, or the neutered version of Alexis Sánchez, who was too focused on doing a Pedro imitation to unleash the beast within, Barcelona's attack became predictable. Stop Messi, stop Barça; it only remained so successful because even slowing Leo down is too much for many teams to muster.
Into this environment came Neymar, with all his dizzying dribbles and his own predilection for orchestrating attacking moves. A team that desperately needed another destabilizing force had finally gotten one. True, Neymar did have to learn that busting off a string-snapping guitar solo in the middle of the pitch was no longer his team's best option for creating beautiful music, but as much as he had to learn how to subsume his individualism into the collective, his bandmates had to learn to let him go from time to time when inspiration struck.
This has been even more true of Suárez. The Uruguayan loves to take on challengers, but his recklessness when choosing to dribble at opponents has at times left Barcelona exposed to counters after a needless turnover. Likewise, he'll sometimes will try an overly-complicated pass to send one of his fellow forwards through on goal when the smarter play would be the safer ball to a midfielder. In the other direction, the team struggled a bit adapting to Suárez and the new style Luis Enrique implemented to get the best out of him. Messi in particular has had to adapt his game fairly significantly, going back out on the right wing after so many years in the center.
Here is a comparison of the attacking stats of Suárez of last season, Suárez this year, and Messi and Neymar, via Squawka:
The numbers demonstrate, in part, why Suárez has yet to produce for Barça the way he did for Liverpool. His scoring per 90 minutes is a third of what it was in England—but he's also taking almost half as many shots now that he shares the pitch with two other monsters. His accuracy is only down a few percentage points, but since he's taking a higher percent of his shots from inside the box, you can see how his misfiring in dangerous areas has contributed to the lack of goals. Also, note how his successful dribbling rate is much lower than that of Barça's other forwards. His eagerness to go it alone when the percentages are against him costs his team in attack and defense.
Not all is negative here, though. The numbers also illustrate what Suárez has done well—namely, set up his partners. Suárez is creating chances at pretty much the same rate as Messi, and when you figure in his ridiculous assist stats—despite missing almost two months of the season, he has the joint-third-most dimes in La Liga, and his 0.66 assists per 90 minutes is third in the Europe's big five leagues (minimum of 10 appearances), behind only Bayern Munich's Sebastian Rode and Chelsea's Cesc Fàbregas—his combined goals and assists per 90 at 1.03 is right behind Neymar's 1.16.
It's Suárez's collaborative play that has impressed so much this season. Even before the rest of the squad—which had been for so long groomed in the patient positional play Johan Cruyff has infused the club with from the academy to the first team—could adapt to Luis Enrique's more direct style, it all came naturally for Suárez. It was already the system he was most familiar with.
Suárez has selflessly occupied central defenders, made sacrificial runs away from the ball in order to drag opponents out of position to free up the other attackers, and, most importantly for the scorelines, has teed up his teammates for goals. Just look at him go!
During this acclimation period, when some criticized the player's lack of end product, Suárez still set up 6 goals in his first nine matches in all competitions. He only scored two goals of his own in that span, but the way he regularly knifed his way into the box before nervously sending his shot astray augured well for his future stats once the pressure abated. Sure enough, as of his last nine matches, he's scored six times himself and laid on another four for his teammates. Instead of looking anxious to live up the they hype, he's been the calm and deadly finisher of his peak Liverpool seasons. And rather than his using his newfound scoring boots selfishly, he's still seeking out teammates even when he should probably shoot himself. Most importantly, instead of over-thinking things, he's letting his instincts take over.
Heading towards into the crucial period of their first season together, Suárez, Messi, and Neymar have all demonstrated the ability to thrive together—a proposition that wasn't at all self-evident from the outset. We've already seen some of the best Messi performances ever, watched as Neymar has gone from massive star to red giant while looking to go full supernova sooner rather than later, and are now starting to witness how the full range of Suárez's galactic qualities can add to the line. And when all three manage to burn their brightest at the same time? We'll feel bad for the pitches scorched by their heat.
Photo by David Ramos/Getty