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A closer look at Luis Suarez’s performance against Lyon

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FC Barcelona v Olympique Lyonnais - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

In what was one of their best showings of the season, Barcelona punched their ticket to a record 12th straight Champions League quarter-finals appearance as they defeated Lyon 5-1 on aggregate in the round of 16. The win was highlighted by exceptional play across the board as each player had an immense impact in putting together an all-around exquisite performance. The overall gameplan and effort displayed proved to be too much for Lyon.

Although Lionel Messi was undoubtedly the man of the match with his stellar two goals and two assists performance, Luis Suarez was the catalyst for Barca’s relentless attack. Even though the Uruguay international did not contribute a goal, it was his playmaking and off-ball movement that helped in opening up Lyon’s sturdy backline. Suarez had a higher work rate than usual as his constant movement frustrated Lyon’s backline throughout the game. Overall, his main goal was to unsettle their defence and open up passing lanes, which was something that Barca struggled to achieve during the first leg.

FC Barcelona v Olympique Lyonnais - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

In the 0-0 first leg fixture of the round of 16, Lyon defended in a tight, narrow 4-4-2 formation that also switched to a 4-4-1-1 setup. Led by Tanguy Ndombele, Lyon were able to successfully halt a vast majority of Barca’s play inside and win back possession with their defensive setup. Barca were lackluster in their attack as they did not counter with effective off-ball movement nor looked to stretch Lyon’s backline with constant runs on the flank by the full-backs. It was only until Philippe Coutinho entered the game that Barca began to show some signs of threatening attacks in the attacking third.

In effect, Ernesto Valverde responded by targeting two main goals for the second leg: play faster and unsettle Lyon’s backline. Valverde did not change the formation nor did he seek to drastically change tactics for the second leg but rather accomplished this by tweaking Suarez’s role in the attack.

Throughout the game, Suarez dropped deeper into open pockets of space and also moved out to the left in order to drag a defender off of his line. While Lyon employed a defensive gameplan of having five at the back, Suarez was still able to cause havoc and open up multitudes of space in the attacking third.

See here how Lyon are comfortably settled with their backline of five defenders near Barca’s front three of Coutinho, Suarez and Messi.

Now Suarez progressively drops deep and brings two defenders off their line. In the process, he is able to open up space inside for Coutinho or Messi to exploit with off-ball runs. This was severely lacking in the first leg.

In the end, Suarez is able to link with Coutinho out wide and make an off-ball run into the open space. He finishes up the play by creating a goal-scoring chance for Messi.

Since Messi occupied space out on the right and inside, Suarez prioritized on moving out to the left in order to link with Alba and Coutinho. Suarez often roamed out to the left or dropped in deeper when Barca were in possession in order to prevent play from being congested inside as was the case during the first leg. This gave more freedom for Alba and Coutinho to move inside rather than stay positioned on the flank.

See here how Messi is able to find Alba out on the left, which is immediately followed by link-up passes with Suarez.

The off-ball movement by Suarez was crucial in winning the penalty kick that opened up the scoring and also the vital assist that provided Coutinho for an effortless tap-in score. Suarez’s positioning and movement up front implemented a new element to Barca’s attack that Lyon were unable to halt. His hold-up play in between the lines opened up passing lanes for trailing runners inside, which often caught Lyon’s backline off guard. Suarez was able to exceptionally read Lyon’s backline and trigger quick counter-attacks.

Lyon’s inability to counter Suarez’s off-ball movement was out of the norm considering how patient they were in their defensive setup during the first leg. While Barca lacked promising off-ball runs in the attacking third, Lyon were still able to trap play inside. But in the second leg, Lyon were subject to constant defensive breakdowns as their 5-3-2 setups left too much space in between the lines. Since Lyon relied on a zonal marking system when they defended deep, Suarez was able to roam freely on the pitch without being closely man-marked by a defender or midfielder.

See here how once again, Suarez shifts out to the left to occupy the space left by Coutinho, who drops deep to maintain possession. Coutinho brings Denayer off his line, which opens up space up front for Arthur to make a run inside.

The play works to perfection as Coutinho links with Suarez who then delivers an upfield pass to Arthur. Lyon’s backline collapses as Arthur creates a goal-scoring chance for Messi. This space would not be available had Suarez not moved out wide and stretched Lyon’s backline.

Throughout the second half, Lyon began to employ a backline of just three defenders in order to high press Barca in their defensive half. But the plan ultimately crumbled as Barca wound up scoring three second-half goals from quick counter-attacks. While Suarez did not score or assist in any of the three second-half goals, his presence on the pitch was felt among the Lyon defenders as they continued to come off their line to press or move out wide to cover him. For a Lyon defense that defended in a narrow 4-4-2 backline during the first leg, they were now being stretched and exposed against Barca’s attack in the second leg

While Suarez did not contribute a goal, his impact was massive on the pitch. Without Suarez’s crucial off-ball runs and positioning up front, Barca might have had a repeat performance of the first leg with slow build-ups and unbalanced offensive setups that disrupted their flow in the attacking third. With an assist, four goal-scoring chances created and 26 passes completed, Suarez had one of his best playmaking performances of the season. He was more than just a decoy on the pitch. His ability to get Messi involved while playing inside and contribute to quick build-ups with Alba and Coutinho out on the left flank provided Barca with endless possibilities while in the attack. More importantly, Suarez excelled in jumpstarting counter-attacks.

For Suarez, playmaking performances like this one on a game-by-game basis can go a long way to getting the very best out of Barca’s attack.