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Luis Suárez and his worst season at Barcelona

A mediocre scoring record and declining form make this his worst season for Barcelona since his arrival in 2014

Nassif Ali

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Header Image by AFP7 / Zuma via Imago

While Barcelona is at the risk of ending the season trophy-less, pending the completion of the Champions League, Luis Suárez’s season on an individual level hints at the need for a replacement.


The La Liga season came to an end a week ago. Amongst the teams that are reviewing what went wrong for them, there is also a side that had won this trophy eight times in the last eleven years, but that couldn’t add a ninth to their record: FC Barcelona.

What happened to Barça in this campaign and what has been happening to them for some time now are topics that have already been discussed and analysed so many times. The point of this write-up, though, is to look at the team’s main striker: its number 9.

Luis Suárez joined Barcelona in 2014. Owing to the FIFA ban on him for four months, he played only 27 La Liga matches in the 14/15 term and scored 16 goals while providing 16 assists as well. The goal involvement rate per match was 1.18. This, however, was only a sign of things to come. With 40 goals and 18 assists, he went on to win the Pichichi trophy for the La Liga top scorer in the following 15/16 season

At 33 years now, Luis Suárez is in that phase where people are looking at the numbers that he is producing, in an attempt to see if he has become a liability. This is very natural in a world-class team like Barcelona. This scrutiny becomes more serious because of his pay packet – 23.5 million a year – that makes him the third highest earner in the whole squad.

“As long as I am capable of helping the team, I will be here. If they give me the chance and my numbers back me, I will always keep fighting for a place in the team”

Luis Suárez

So how did Suárez fare in the 2019/20 course? It was an eventful season for him, to say the least. Just after the first matchday, he picked a calf injury that kept him out for almost month. He made a great comeback with two goals against Valencia in September, and added four more before the end of October. At the turn of the year, though, he was out injured again and had to undergo surgery to his knee.

Things looked really bleak for both him and the team at this point, as it was deemed that he would be out for three to four months. Suárez’s season was all but over and Barça was left with very little options upfront. But it was in early March that the global pandemic suspended practically everything, including football, for months on end. This allowed Luis to recover and join the Catalans for the last lap of the league season.

With 16 goals and 8 assists in 28 games, Suárez’s rate of goal involvement per match for the season is at 0.85. In terms of goals scored, this is the lowest output that he has produced since joining the blaugranas in 2014. It is even lower than his first year, when he had to stay away from the pitch for four months. One could argue that his injury absence is what caused this decline in the rate.

Luis Suárez Barcelona season

While Luis Suárez has continued to exhibit his instinct many times, the explosiveness, touch and brutality that defined him in the past have been fading away little by little | Photo by Aitor Alcalde via Getty Images

Nevertheless, there are two factors one has to take into account here. First, the fall in the stats is not limited to the recently concluded season. The previous 18/19 campaign saw Luisito finding the back of the net 21 times in 33 fixtures. With an added 6 assists, his goal involvement rate was at the lowest ever in red and blue colours: 0.81. Secondly, while his injury did keep him away from the pitch for a long time, he did not miss many clashes during this period owing to the pandemic.

Therefore, the decline in his output, one has to conclude, is not sudden. It is a natural process that all athletes go through as age catches up with them. This is not to say that he is finished altogether. On his day, the Uruguayan is still one of the best strikers in the world and he is still lethal with the ball at his feet. And that is where the problem lies.

Where once he would push ahead and pressurise the defences for a loose ball, now he needs the ball to come to his feet. His movement off the ball has taken a serious hit. It is evident, thus, that injuries have started taking a toll on his performances and game time. While he missed nine league games to injuries last term, in this one it was fourteen duels.

“One starts growing older and becomes conscious that he needs a replacement at times”

Luis Suárez

Suárez himself has stated, more than once, that the team has to look for another striker. Barcelona has also been actively pursuing Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martínez. But even if this transfer materialises, there are several questions that remain. Even as Suárez has expressed his welcome for Lautaro, will the veteran striker be willing to take up a lesser role in the team? Or is he going to throw tantrums at being subbed off, as he has already done on a few occasions? Will the Argentinian be given a chance to prove himself and establish his starting position, or is he going to have to be content with being Suárez’s back up?

Even if Suárez was willing to take up a lesser role in the team – as unlikely as it is – there is the question of his wages. He would then be earning a little too much for someone who does not even have a starting role in the team. And this would be a point that would create headaches for the board at Barça, as the club is reeling under the pressure of bloated wage packets and mounting expenses.


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In my thirty years filled with accidental decisions - that got me as far as a PhD in history - one deliberate constant has been football. I have been an avid fan of the beautiful game since the 1998 world cup. Back then, in India, following football meant reading about it rather than watching it. I owe much of my love of the game and passion for writing about it, to those fantastic sports journalists and writers who could recreate the excitement of the whole game in a few succinct words.

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Analysis

Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

In collaboration with Anurag Agate.


Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.


A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.

Barcelona structure and formation

Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.

Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.

Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.

Atletico structure and formation

Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.

Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.

The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.

Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.

Game Stats

The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:

Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :

Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.

Buildup to shots and goals

Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.

Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.

Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.

Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.

In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:

Passing Characteristics

Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.

Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.

For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.

Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.

Defence

The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:

Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :

Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.

Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.

Conclusion

The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.

Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.

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