Luis Suárez makes his return to competitive club football against Manchester United at Old Trafford tonight, having finally completed the ten-match ban he was handed for biting Branislav Ivanović back in April.
Whatever happens at Old Trafford this evening, the fact that Suárez will return from suspension in a Liverpool shirt is a small victory in itself. During a summer of interest from Arsenal which saw Suárez go public in expressing his desire to be allowed to speak to the North London club, it didn’t always appear a foregone conclusion that the mercurial Uruguayan would still be a Liverpool player once his ban was served.
FSG’s steadfast refusal to be bullied into selling the want-away forward to a direct rival was taken as an unequivocal statement of intent from an ownership regime viewed with scepticism by some in the wake of the divisive decision to sack Kenny Dalglish, and the Clint Dempsey saga at the beginning of last season. Brendan Rodgers’ adroit handling of the affair, meanwhile, did much to enhance his own standing among a support still somewhat indifferent following his unspectacular first year in charge.
Results have dipped since the strong start to the season which saw some Reds question whether Suárez was really such a loss, yet anyone who now believes that the return of the 26 year-old represents an immediate solution to Liverpool’s performance issues might want to think again. Successfully rebuffing the Arsenal overtures saw Rodgers face down a crisis and emerge with enhanced credibility, but now that the player he and FSG fought so hard to keep is finally available again, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the Northern Irishman faces possibly the most critical tactical and coaching challenges of his Liverpool career to date in trying to extract performances from Suárez that will improve Liverpool’s prospects of challenging for a top four finish.
Beyond the decent overall run of results, much about Liverpool’s displays this season, whether looking at possession, pass completion, or shots taken relative to shots conceded, has been unimpressive. The two areas where Rodgers’ side have improved upon recent seasons – and dramatically so – are in terms of resilience in their own penalty area, largely thanks to upgrading Pepe Reina’s weak shot stopping with that of Simon Mignolet, and efficiency in the opposition’s box, this courtesy of the ruthlessness of Daniel Sturridge. These improvements and little else besides are why Liverpool have managed to collect an encouraging ten points from their first five Premier League fixtures.
Yet the return of Suárez presents a threat to the latter element of this progress. The former Ajax forward is often touted as one of greatest players in world football beneath the era-defining talents of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and on the face of it, 23 goals in 33 Premier League appearances last season suggest he’s probably somewhere up there. But as an excellent blog post from Ted Knutson back in May revealed, the statistics show Suárez to be a long way behind the rest of the world’s great strikers over the past two seasons when it shots taken per goal scored. The most clinical of all those listed from the beginning of the 2011/12 season up until the end of the 2012/13 campaign is Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski, who averaged 49.9% of shots on target across the two seasons, and scored with an average of 21.15%. Suárez, by comparison, managed to find the target only 38% of the time, and needed twice as many shots to score, with a goal percentage of only 10.45%. Robin van Persie, meanwhile, hit the target with 45.7% of his attempts, with a scoring average of 16.45%. Even Cristiano Ronaldo, a wide forward rather than a true striker, and one renowned for shooting from outrageous distances at that, managed better accuracy and conversion rates than Suárez, averaging 39.5% of his shots on target over the two seasons, with 12.8% resulting in goals. Elsewhere in the Liverpool squad, Daniel Sturridge has found the target with 45.5% of his shots since arriving from Chelsea in January, scoring with a highly impressive 18.1% (statistics courtesy of @DHardayal).
Just as 34 league goals in total across those two seasons produce a mixed picture when contrasted with the poor shot conversion rate, the fact that Suárez was simultaneously the most successful dribbler and the most frequently dispossessed player in the Premier League last season is hard evidence that the Uruguayan is both remarkably industrious and yet frustratingly inefficient. In addition to being directly dispossessed more often than any other player in the division, Suárez also gave the ball way more often than all but one other player. This tendency to lose the ball is unlikely to do much to help Liverpool improve upon their unimpressive average possession share of just 49.5% so far during the current campaign, or to relieve pressure on a side which often appears to tire as games progress.
In light of these numbers, the now well-documented chasm between the Reds’ win percentage without Suárez (61%) and their inferior record with him in the team (39%) perhaps makes more sense, and can be understood as more than a mere statistical fluke. Even more telling is the fact that, as Knutson points out, up until the end of last season, Liverpool managed the same number of shots per game without Suárez on the pitch as they did when he played.
Think about all this for a moment, and it shouldn’t come as such a surprise. Think particularly of Suárez’s second goal for the club: an outrageous effort struck from the byline against Sunderland – beyond Simon Mignolet of all goalkeepers – at the Stadium of Light in March 2011. An extreme example, granted, but also a rare successful attempt among the many other shots struck from low percentage angles that are so typical of the Uruguayan’s play. This facet of Suárez’s game, and his overall approach to football are summed pretty well in this quote from the man himself, taken from Vamos que Vamos: Un equipo, un país, a book profiling each member of the Uruguay squad which reached the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup:
“If a move doesn’t come off for me, I want to keep trying it, and trying it and trying it. I really, really, really want to score. And I guess in life it’s the same for me. If I want something, I really, really want that something. And if I don’t get it, I get mad.”
There is no doubt that this mentality is at once Suárez’s greatest strength and his biggest weaknesses, both in footballing terms, and where his temperament is concerned. In the former, it manifests itself in equal measures of brilliance and wastefulness, with the latter in both persistence and indiscipline.
Football is a results business above all else. Nothing is better than three points won courtesy of scintillating football and goals that will be spoken about in hushed tones decades from now, but when it’s not possible to have both, I’d wager that most of us are a lot happier after a drab 1-0 win by way of a close-range header from a set piece than following a 1-1 draw in which the Reds scored a Goal of the Season contender but squandered a glut of chances besides. Our love of the spectacular and the pride of place those rare moments of genius enjoy among our memories can lead us to wrongly equate the thrilling with the productive, and the spectacular with the successful. It is for precisely this reason that Luis Suárez, for all his undoubted talent, is rated more highly at this point than he ought to be, and presents Brendan Rodgers with something of a conundrum.
Put simply, the challenge for Rodgers is to teach Suárez to apply his unique brilliance more sparingly for the benefit of the team, to improve his judgement as to when he should dribble past his marker, and when to simply lay the ball off to another red shirt; when to attempt to score the improbably spectacular goal, and when to square to a team-mate with a much better chance of scoring a cheap one. Rodgers’ apparent intention to continue to build the Liverpool attack around providing service for the more clinical Sturridge is encouraging, but the real test will come in trying to coax a more efficient and pragmatic contribution from Suárez and his unique talents from a wide position.
Winning is everything, and what Rodgers needs to make Suárez understand is that Liverpool will win more often if he makes fewer attempts to dominate the end of season highlight reels, and places greater emphasis on doing the boring stuff consistently well. If the Northern Irishman cannot convey this message to his number seven, he could have his work cut out convincing FSG that he merits a third season in the job come the end of the season. Succeed, and Suárez may not need to leave in search of Champions League football after all.
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