As Luis Suarez walked off with the match ball following Barcelona’s 6-1 demolition of Girona at the weekend, it reminded the Camp Nou faithful just what the Uruguayan forward is capable of in front of goal. The 2017-18 campaign, which began with Los Cules adapting to the post-Neymar era, has seen a Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde version of Suarez, beginning with his poor form at the start of the year only for the forward to return to his usual self in the last few weeks. In light of the departure of the €200m man, Suarez has finally stepped up as Barca go in search of yet another Treble.
It was always going to be a strenuous campaign for a Barcelona side who aren’t used to hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons. But that all changed last summer, when PSG blindsided their Spanish counterparts after activating the buyout clause inserted into Neymar’s contract. It seemed surreal that a club would pay such an extravagant amount for one player, but when you’re loaded with the embarrasing riches that the Parisien club are, they considered it a risk worth taking as their obsession to firmly place themselves amongst Europe’s elite loosened Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s purse strings. The whole saga caused a stir, not just in Barcelona, but across the country as the LFP’s office even attempted to step in to disrupt the pending transfer. Their efforts were in vain, however, and Neymar shortly completed his stunning move to France.
It was a move which encapsulated the disappointing transfer window that Barcelona endured. The board split fan opinion when they splashed a third of that cash on the young-and-upcoming star of Borussia Dortmund, Ousmane Dembele, while the long-awaited arrival of Philippe Coutinho finally came to fruition in January. The shocking move for Tottenham Hotspur reject Paulinho only helped increase the bleak atmosphere surrounding the side. The jury is still out on these players, and whether or not they have what it takes to be a success in the famous Blaugrana, but one overlooked, positive aspect of Neymar’s exit was the added offensive responsibilty falling at the feet of Suarez. As the number one attacking option during his days in Liverpool, the 31-year-old excelled in the role, scoring 82 goals in an iconic three-year spell at Anfield. Combining that with the 121 goals he had produced in his first three seasons in Spain, there was little doubt he could help replace the lost production due to Neymar’s exit.
And yet, Suarez did struggle at the start of the year. He scored just 3 goals in 14 outings during the early days of Ernesto Valverde’s tenure as manager, trying to fit into a formation that wasn’t best suited for him. It was the first time since he moved to Barcelona that the system wasn’t based around himself and his forward comrades. In both years under Luis Enrique, the team was centred around the attacking trio of ‘MSN’, but Valverde has bucked that trend, beliving in the benefits of a team revolved around a rigid 4-4-2 formation. Instead of running off the shoulders of the opposition defence, or cutting in from the left wing, Suarez was now asked to hold the ball up in anticipation of forward runs from the midfield. Valverde often opted for an Andre Gomes/ Andreas Iniesta wing partnership, shipping away from the winger-centric 4-3-3- system that Barca have used in the past. It took a while, but the former Ajax striker seems to finally be settling into his new role.
Since the middle of December, when Barcelona won at Villarreal, Suarez has scored 17 goals in as many appearances, as well as collecting seven assists. His transformation into the solidifed number two attacking option, a title which used to be shared with Neymar, seems to be coming along a lot better, and Barca are reaping the benefits of it. They’ve stormed ahead domestically, currently seven points better off than second-placed Atletico, who they face at home in a nail-biting clash next weekend, while qualifying for yet another Copa del Rey final. Suarez may have been ineffective against Chelsea during the first leg of the Champions League second round tie at Stamford Bridge, finding himself crowded by Antonio Conte’s sturdy defensive organisation, but as the contest switches to the Camp Nou, you can expect Suarez to find more space between the lines of Chelsea’s three man defense.The English side have to score at some point on the night or they’ll face elimination, which should translate to a more attacking mindset from the Premier League Champions.
That showing in London was arguably Suarez’s worst since he started his incredible scoring run, a feat that has largely gone unnoticed due to Messi’s magic moments constantly grabbing the headlines. And no player deserves the plaudits more than the Argentinian. However, it’s hard to overlook the impact Suarez’s renewed form has had on his team-mates. In the 19 games prior to the match against Villarreal, Barcelona scored 36 goals; in the time since that game, they’ve knocked in 43. In that span Messi has averaged a rating of 8.8, a number calculated via whoscored.com, an increase over the 8.4 he garnered in the matches before then. The 30-year-old had been sublime for the majority of the first few months of the year, but there was a drop-off in performances in the month of November, as defenses wised up to Suarez’ poor outings and collapsed on any space Messi was able to create. The Uruguayan’s return to form has once again forced the opposition to pay attention to him, thus allowing more freedom for Messi, which is always a good thing for Barcelona.
The inspiring performances from Coutinho and Dembele in the win over Girona only re-inforces the excitment surrounding Barca’s attacking personnel. All four forwards looked comfortable playing alongside each other, with Suarez’s teammates assisting on his hat-trick while he himself was credited with setting up Messi’s first finish as well as Coutinho’s wondergoal. It was a wonderful display of free flowing football, one that has been somewhat absent from the Camp Nou this year, and one which was treated with relief following the stagnant display against Chelsea.
It’s not a coincidence that both outings reflected the impact Suarez had throughout the contests, his quiet showing at Stamford Bridge resulting in a fortuitous 1-1 draw while his man-of-the-match performance inspired the goals galore victory last Saturday. Both matches are a good example of how this side revolves around the play of Messi and Suarez, usually only playing as well as their front two do. As Suarez and Messi go, so do Barcelona, and that is a pattern that is likely to continue as a hopeful season enters its most important phase.