Is the old Luis Suarez back or is it too early to make a call?
Playing for one of the Big Two in Spain comes with its caveats. On the one hand, you get adulation and worldwide recognition for your exploits when things are going well but then again you face the wrath of an impatient fan base and an unforgiving press when you hit a slump.
It does not matter if the team overall is playing well too, individual criticism is always right around the corner. This is exactly the precarious situation Luis Suarez found himself in.
Having made an underwhelming start to the season with just two goals and an assist prior to their clash against Atletico Madrid, the mumblings surrounding the marksman were slowly gathering pace and unless he turned it around soon, he may well be have been looking to a critical season in an otherwise impeccable career for the Blaugrana.
He did step up. He scored the crucial equalizing goal and saved Barca from dropping points against their Liga rivals. It was not his best performance, but he is showing signs of returning back to his usual lethal self.
Now to get an understanding of Luis Suarez’s woes prior to this clash, lets put the situation in context and try to understand the bigger picture first.
The Summer in Barcelona
That Barcelona had a tumultuous summer would be an understatement. The sale of Neymar and a hyper-inflated transfer market fully aware of Barcelona’s newfound funds were attempting to go after every penny they had begrudgingly accepted from Paris. Dembele was still only a possibility and so was Coutinho but they were being priced out.
Supercopa de España woes
Fast forward to August 17, 2017. Having lost the first leg of the Supercopa de España convincingly with a 3-1 home loss against arch-rivals Real Madrid, Barcelona needed a response and quick.
With a new look squad, a new manager yet to fully get his ideas across and the bitter taste of the Neymar sale still lingering, it looked like an uphill task. And so it turned out to be. Barcelona ended up losing 2-0 and to add salt to the wound, Suarez was ruled out for a month with an ankle injury. Not the most ideal start for the club or Suarez.
Suarez was given the green light by Barcelona to join the national squad and continue his recovery. Uruguay were in a crucial stage of their World Cup qualification process and Suarez ended up playing in both the matches.
He gave the Blaugrana a scare when he limped off against Argentina but he allayed those fears as he returned in the fixture against Paraguay and scored a crucial goal to secure the three points. Now back to Barcelona.
Matchday One- Signs of Decline or fatigue?
The biggest concern after the international break, especially for the South Americans is the long trip they have to make across the Atlantic and then try to return back to optimal condition as quickly as possible. It was fully evident as Barcelona kicked off their La Liga campaign against Espanyol.
Although they comfortably won 5-0, Suarez looked off the pace and like a player who still needed some time to hit the ground running. The desire was still there. He was seen tirelessly hounding the centre-backs and attempting to make things happen.
But the real hallmarks of a world-class striker- composure and accuracy seemed to be missing. He was missing chances which he would normally convert and he cut a frustrating figure until he finally scored in the dying minutes with the introduction of the newly signed Dembele. Relief.
Demand and Supply (and Suarez)
Neymar’s departure hit Suarez the hardest as he is a player who capitalizes on quick one-twos and continuous supply inside the box. Just a look back at the past few seasons of the MSN era gives us an understanding of his near-telepathic understanding with Neymar and Messi. He has never been a player who single-handedly creates chances and converts them like Messi.
Even back in his Liverpool days, he had his best season playing alongside Sturridge (who incidentally also had his most impressive season) and Gerrard, who supplied him with numerous chances.
Following his first goal, courtesy a Dembele assist, it looked like he was on the verge of forming a wonderful understanding with the young French international. But as luck would have it, Dembele suffered an injury on his full debut which has ruled him out till January.
Gerard Deulofeu stills looks like a work in progress and lacks that quality on the final ball which Suarez so craves.
The show must go on (Snap Back to reality)
The Uruguayan belongs to the elite crop of players who are compared to Messi/ Ronaldo or their own past performances. For a while, it has been the general consensus that he is (or used to be) the best centre-forward in the world.
So the expectations are rather high and rightfully so considering what we have seen from him in the past. He opened last season with a hattrick and with a ridiculous record of 17 goals in the past six league games. Heading into the match against Atletico, he was nowhere near that level.
Is he nearing the end?
Now by this statement, I do not mean that he is nearing the end of his career. What needs to be asked is if he is nearing the end of his status as a player for an elite club. The demands at clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid are very high and players normally only stay as long as their performances are of the highest level, especially for forwards (ask Alexis Sanchez and David Villa).
Suarez has had a highly productive three years at Barcelona and the 2016/17 European Golden boot winner needs to keep up those performances in order to retain a place in such a highly demanding and competitive team.
He is not helped either by the anomalies that are Ronaldo and Messi who have redefined the meaning of “peak years” as they consistently rack up the numbers year in year out a decade in.
Performance against Atletico. Respite or return?
One of the hallmarks of a truly world-class player is the ability to bounce back when the swarm of doubters keeps increasing. There is no better answer for a forward being questioned of his form than scoring a brace, a hattrick or putting in a truly inspiring performance against a big team.
So the match against Atletico Madrid could not have come at a better time for the Barcelona frontman. We already know how good a player he is but it is matches like these which help us get an insight into the character of the player and see how he reacts with his back against `the wall’ (also what Atletico Madrid’s playing style and defensive organization looks like).
His recent brace in the World Cup Qualifier against Bolivia gave him some much-needed confidence heading into the game. And to his and Barca's relief, he scored the crucial equalizer for the Blaugrana in the dying stages of the game.
His goal was the result of sheer determination and doggedness on a night which looked like it was set to be another trademark Atletico defensive performance. This is what he brings to the team. That bullish mentality.
He now possesses a quite healthy record of six goals in the last 8 matches against Atletico Madrid and looks to be finally getting back to his groove. He had a good game, but is he really back? We can save that discussion for later.