Just over a week ago, Barcelona paid their annual visit to Mestalla, to take on Valencia. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, marking the Blaugrana’s fourth consecutive league outing without a win – the first such run for the club in over a dozen years. The last time Barcelona played four league games and won none of them – the final three games of the 2004-05 season, and the 2005-06 opener – Twitter would not exist for another six months and we were nearly two years away from the release of the first iPhone.
Re-watch the game and you may be struck by a couple of things. For starters, Valencia did a fantastic job of containing Barcelona in the midfield. The hosts struck for the opening goal after 80 seconds, tested Marc-Andre ter Stegen again about five minutes later, and then managed a lone shot on target over the next 84 minutes. They did, however, so effectively suffocate Barcelona’s attack that, until Lionel Messi lasered the ball into the bottom corner to tie the game in the 23rd minute – and perhaps even for a bit thereafter – it felt as though Valencia had one, sometimes two extra players on the field.
On a related note, for all the talk over the years of Barcelona’s (over?)dependence on Messi, this current squad suffers as acutely from the affliction as any in the Messi-as-God era. For all the money that’s been invested, and all of the world-class talent Barcelona rolls out, there’s seemingly not another player on the team that commands any game the way that Messi commands every game. It’s not that the drop-off from Messi to everyone else is so vast (though, it is… like, shockingly so), it’s that any impetus for a dominant performance comes from Messi, or doesn’t come at all.
Last season, under similar (though seemingly less severe) circumstances, this did little to curb domestic dominance. However, Barça’s recent vintages have exhibited a limited shelf life outside of Spain. Since winning the treble in 2014-15, the club has not only exited the Champions League at the quarterfinal stage each year, but has been held scoreless in four of six legs, including each away leg, twice relinquishing a lead gained in the first leg at home. Most recently, of course, was a cataclysmic night in Rome, in which a 3-0 Roma victory over a toothless Barcelona overturned a seemingly insurmountable 4-1 opening leg tally. In case you were wondering, the bookies’ pregame odds of such an event taking place were 65-to-1.
The stated aim for this season – laid out clearly by Messi – is a return to Champions League glory. In order to achieve its ultimate goal, Barcelona will require at least one (likely more) dominant, match-winning performance from someone other than Leo. Philippe Coutinho is outrageously talented and has turned in some outstanding performances for the club, but has yet to flash the ruthlessness to ravage the world’s very best. Similarly gifted, possessing blinding speed, and off to a strong start, Ousmane Dembélé is a prime candidate to emerge as a secondary match-winner, though inexperience and a still-being-defined role on the team present challenges. We could, perhaps, look to the midfield playmakers, Ivan Rakitić and new arrival, Arthur. Excellent though they may be, there’s little to suggest that either can reliably conjure up the type of performance to which we’re referring.
What about Suárez, I hear you ask. Ah, yes, Luisito…
Anyone familiar with me or my written work knows that NBA basketball was my first sporting love and indoctrination into a lifetime of fandom. I awkwardly shoehorn this personal nugget in because of a recurring, nagging thought that, in light of recent form, and on the eve of a new NBA season, has uncomfortably jumped to the fore: barring a miraculous return to form, 2018 Luis Suárez bears more than a passing resemblance to late-period Carmelo Anthony.
At their respective peaks, both Suárez and Carmelo were unassailable attacking forces. At his best with the Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks, Carmelo was master of lighting up the scoreboard. That his methods were inefficient and he focused little on other aspects of the game was easily forgivable because he was simply so good at what he did well – get buckets. He married skill and power with devastating effect in isolation, abusing defenders with an array of fakes and changes of pace in tight quarters, en route to his patented mid-range jump shot. However, he was also more than capable of bullying his way to the basket. In the history of American professional basketball, he has attempted more shots than all but 20 players, made more shots than all but 24, and scored more points than all but 21. A pure, dyed-in-the-wool bucket-getter.
More recently, however, thanks to the combined effects of age, ego, and a stylistic shift that’s devalued the style of play at which he excelled, Anthony is spending his NBA twilight locked in a losing battle, but no longer armed with the generational talent to brute force his way to the top of a team’s pecking order. Every step of the way, however, he’s clung to that superstar mentality, literally laughing at the idea of accepting a reduced role, despite the erosion of the physical gifts that made him special.
His sixteenth professional season will be his third in a row on a new team, and his first on a team with genuine championship aspirations. Whether this opportunity is the one that he seizes to subjugate his role in the name of collective success remains to be seen. If it is not, however, he will have taken another stride toward the end of his NBA road – still universally respected by his peers, but no longer of use to those charged with assembling successful basketball teams.
Now, at his very best, Suárez was an objectively better, more well-rounded player than Anthony. His work-rate tireless, his speed and power ideally suited to his role, a gift for sniffing out scoring opportunities that borders on preternatural, a talented and more willing passer. His relentlessness transformed him into a force of nature – bearing down on goal, defenders, even the goalkeeper, reduced to speed bumps on his quest to stuff the ball into the net. More than any attacker of this generation outside of Cristiano Ronaldo, Suárez isn’t just looking to score, he’s looking to demoralize. He’s dunking on you.
At his peak Suárez was devastation incarnate. Since his breakout 2012-13 season with Liverpool, in which he scored 23 goals and assisted on another five, averaging a goal or an assist every 105.5 minutes, he produced an astounding five-year run of production in league play, during which his rate of goals/assists never exceeded 78.4 minutes (2017-18). He peaked in 2015-16, when he netted his Pichichi-worthy 40 goals at a rate of one every 78.8 minutes. Take into account his 16 assists as well, and he was directly involved in the creation of a goal every 56.3 minutes. That’s not elite, that’s virtually superhuman.
Lionel Messi’s dominance is reminiscent of that of Stephen Curry – the fresh-faced, diminutive savant. The wizard whose sorcery is so brutally unleashed, that the friendly, almost cute mask is forever slipping, revealing the stone cold assassin lurking beneath. This is not Luis Suárez. He’s in an unending dispute with one referee or another, often in pursuit of a call that only he is attempting to sell. He is an absolute nightmare for opponents as well – not only because he’ll run them ragged, but because of the constant irritation, aggravation and… let’s be frank. The man’s been disciplined multiple times for biting opposing players. He’s not nice. He definitely doesn’t feel like your friend.
Recently, however, it’s Suárez’s mask that’s begun to slip, his waning contribution increasingly difficult to ignore. Initially the issue was confined to the Champions League, where, in 21 games over two-plus Champions League campaigns he’s managed just four goals and six assists (three goals, two assists in nine games in 2016-17; a lone goal and three assists in 10 games in 2017- 18; nada thus far this year), but has now spread to the league as well. In La Liga in 2018-19, he’s managed three goals and three assists in 659 minutes (110 minutes per goal/assist) in eight games; remove the 8-2 demolition of Huesca in which he notched two goals and an assist, and he’s managed a single goal and two assists in 569 minutes, or a massive 190 minutes per goal/assist. This on the heels of a 2017-18 campaign that saw him go nearly 110 minutes between every goal or assist – a half an hour longer than the season prior. Beyond the number of chances he’s missed (three goals is roughly half the number he’d be expected to have, based on quality of chances – and that seems conservative), there have been some rather ill-timed misfires (the muffed would-have-been winner v. Bilbao comes immediately to mind).
I lay this out not because I have any vested interest in smearing the names of two of the preeminent attacking forces in their respective sports. Rather, Luis Suárez – like Carmelo Anthony at the end of his New York tenure, and during his one season with the Oklahoma City Thunder – is a once great player who, while still capable, is clearly a lesser version of his peak self. However, thanks to reputation and name recognition, he remains an iron-clad fixture in the Barcelona starting lineup.
On a possibly related note, extending the NBA analogy a bit further, given his close friendship with Lionel Messi, Suárez is reminiscent of another recent NBA archetype: the guy that’s acquired/ featured/paid largely because of a friendship with LeBron James. Think James Jones, Cleveland Dwyane Wade, or Tristan Thompson’s contract. There is no concrete evidence (of which I’m aware) that this is the case with Barcelona and Suárez, but it’s an awkward possibility that may be obstructing a more aggressive pursuit (or retention; because we all saw this coming) of Barcelona’s next top-class center forward.
Both Suárez and Anthony have said that they’d know when they were no longer good enough to compete at the very top level. I do not doubt their sincerity. However, that is undoubtedly the toughest call for any professional athlete to make, let alone one who’s likely got no recollection of competing at anything less than a world-class level. Suárez continues to be a physical marvel, working tirelessly, one 90-minute shift after another, continuing to sniff out opportunities in front of goal. He’s clearly still got considerable contributions to make. However, it may be time for an honest assessment of whether these contributions might now entail more days off, and outings of all 90 minutes. It could be vital in not only helping Luisito return to form, but because Barcelona must begin to look to a future that’s approaching more quickly than anyone would like to admit.