While Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo always focus most of the discussion, in the 2015/16 season a superhuman striker deserved all the attention: Luis Suárez.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s duopoly in the past decade will be a topic of conversation for many years. The two pushed the boundaries known to man and made the history books all about themselves. “Be blessed to have been fortunate enough to have been born in the same era as Messi and Ronaldo” is a famous saying, but that begs the question, are the other special players who have been residing in a shadow cast by the two also fortunate?
Such is the case with El Pistolero. Luis Suárez, arguably one of the most talented players of the decade behind the Argentine, will also go down in the history books, but one question will forever linger: could he have been something more, had he been born a few years earlier or a few years later?
In this article, we will not be discussing this thesis, though. Instead, we will be looking at a season where Luis Suárez was arguably the best player in the world.
Suárez’s second season at Barcelona was arguably the greatest season a striker has ever had, even greater than his own 13/14 campaign. The Uruguayan ending the game with at least two goal contributions to his name was a given. Defenders trembled at the sight of Luis warming up. Messi was injured during the season, and the number 9 seized the opportunity to take the helm of the Catalan ship.
It is important to appreciate the beautiful irony in the fact Suárez was more than just the numbers while playing in a position that was most associated with numbers. Midfielders can’t be reduced to numbers, as their ability to dictate the tempo and vision has no metrics. A winger’s ability to widen the pitch to create openings has no metrics. So when a football enthusiast is asked about a position on the pitch they believe can be best judged by numbers, the answer will nine out of ten times be striker.
Of course, the traditional striker has grown into a more advanced role with different types of strikers such as the infamous false 9. But at the end of the day the primary objective of most strikers is to complete the task that is required to win the game – to score goals.
Still, Suárez couldn’t be reduced to just numbers that season. His off-ball runs, his ability to link up with either flank and his judgement surpassed any measurable metric. And yet even when it came to numbers, he ended the course at the very top.
The only way to truly appreciate the Suárez that is beyond the numbers is to watch him play, reading about him won’t do justice, so the objective of this article will be to look at what can be expressed in words – the numbers.
Stats per 90
data from understat.com
Let us begin with an interesting metric. Goals per 90 is a more fair comparison than the total goals scored in the season. A reason for this is the players might not have played the same minutes in the season, so a player who has played 5,000 minutes will more than likely have scored more goals than a player who has played 500 minutes. However, even then G90 does not take in other factors such as a player who has in fact played lesser minutes and has a comparatively lower G90 could have been affected by poor match fitness as a result of reduced. So while there are flaws, this is the best we can do.
As shown on the chart, Suárez had 1.14 G90 compared to Cristiano Ronaldo’s 0.99 G90 and Lionel Messi’s 0.86 G90. This shows that Suárez scored the most average goals per match, and so proves that he was in fact the best goalscorer that season.
Let us introduce a new metric, xG90, or Expected Goals per 90. This is a statistic that describes the expected amount of goals a player should score per 90 based on numerous factors such as position, key passes received, etc. This bar chart places the G90 block on top of the xG90 block for each player. Here is the actual data.
As you can see, Suárez was the only player to have a G90 greater than his xG90. So essentially, he was scoring more goals per match than he should have been scoring, which is simply insane. This metric proves that Luis wasn’t just an ordinary striker whose goals were as a result of other playmakers setting the ball perfectly for a tap-in, etc; he was doing unnatural things on the pitch, creating chances out of nothing and scoring goals that wouldn’t have been scored had it been anyone else.
Obviously, every position on the pitch has a different role. With Suárez being the centre-forward, it can be argued that the reason he had more goals than Messi and Ronaldo in 15/16 was due to him taking more shots as that is his role in the team. This chart debunks that myth. Note: It is important to state that the blocks aren’t stacked onto each other, but the blue Sh90 block also begins from 0.
Suárez was taking the least shots per 90 and was yet scoring the most goals per 90. This shows just how clinical the Uruguayan gunman was that year.
Now that we have seen some of the metrics per 90, let us take a look at a bigger picture. In this short section, we will be observing the evolution of Suárez, Messi and Cristiano in the 15/16 La Liga term.
Before we analyse this chart, it’s important to note that this is over a 38 game session, and so even even the games that the players didn’t play due to injury or otherwise were considered. This chart just simply shows the cumulative goals scored throughout the 15/16 league season.
As you can see, Suárez ended the league season with the most goals: 40. As a matter of fact, he scored the most league goals in Europe that season winning his second European Golden Shoe. While he didn’t score a single game in the first few games, his goal tally soon started to rise.
Luis completely dominated the league in terms of goals during the midseason, and he overtook Cristiano Ronaldo, with Messi already out of the picture due to his frequent injuries. During the last few games of the season, Suárez seemed to come to a stop and it looked like he wasn’t going to end the season as the league’s top scorer however the Uruguayan’s impressive 8 goals in 2 games during weeks 34 and 35, won him his first and only Pichichi award.
In the game of football, there can’t be an open play goal with an assist of some form. So while some players lead in goals, others lead in assists. Nevertheless, in the 15/16 term Suárez led in both. There was a fierce battle between the 3, but as the chart depicts, after around game week 18 Suárez completely exploded and carried that momentum till the end of the season. The Uruguayan concluded the season with an impressive 18 assists, the most in the division.
League stats per match
In the preceeding section, where the cumulative goals and assists throughout the season were shown, a thing that wasn’t considered was the matches that were not played by players. However, in this section, we will look at a chart depicting the G90 and A90 only for the league games.
Two boxplots have been used to show the players’ goals per match and assists per match in La Liga. A boxplot shows the minimum, the maximum, the first quartile, the median, the third quartile, the maximum, and the outliers.
These charts depict how Suárez, Messi and Ronaldo usually performed per match in terms of goals and assists.
Throughout this article, Suárez has been compared with Messi and Ronaldo, the two best players of our generation. These charts show that Luisito in fact did outperform both of them during the 15/16 season. Now for the final chart of the article, let us see how the El Pistolero compared with all the other top players during the 2015/16.
As this scatter plot shows, Suárez outscored every single player in the top 5 leagues in Europe while coming in second to Neymar Júnior in terms of assists. An incredible feat.
In the future, when we look back at these great years and discuss about players such as Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Arjen Robben or Frank Ribéry who could all have won the coveted Ballon d’Or had they played in a different era, remember to include Luis Alberto Suárez, the greatest striker of our generation, in that conversation. Nobody has scored more goals in a single season ever since.
Suárez’s tenure at Barcelona is surely but slowly coming to an end. The Uruguayan, who was bought from Liverpool in the summer of 2014, has been part of many controversies and has had many lows but he has brought about unprecedented emotions in all culés worldwide. During the 2015/16 year, we got to see a generational striker at the absolute peak of his powers.
An extaordinary season by an extraordinary player.
Ricardo Zamora: The greatest between the posts
Guest Author: Amal Ghosh
Ricardo Zamora has a rollercoaster of a footballing career, flooded with controversies. Despite that, he is said to be arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time.
“He is alone, condemned to watch the match from afar. Never leaving the goal, his only company the two posts and the crossbar, he awaits his own execution by firing squad.” Eduardo Galeano perhaps wrote the most melancholic description of a goalkeeper’s life of solitude.
The memoir of a goalkeeper lies between the thin line of glorious feats and eternal damnation. There were not many of them in the yesteryears of world football that we still reminisce. In fact, many of those who survived the rushing cavalries of the opposition attack were shot, shun, or shaded by that one slip or misplaced dive.
At the beginning of the 1900s, when the game was a far cry from the sophisticated version of the present day, the football pitch was a grant arena to celebrate the sparring between the defence and offence. Stars and idols were born and illustrated for the knack to score goals or the flamboyant display on the pitch.
In 1916, a skinny sixteen years old from Barcelona, who had a fortuitous debut for Espanyol against Real Madrid, went on to become the first superstar in the history of Spanish football. Moreover, the first goalkeeper to make a name for his style and to become an inspiration for the generations to come. Ricardo Zamora Martinez was one of the greatest goalkeepers both in the history of FC Barcelona and La Roja. He was the first and finest of his kind and left a gargantuan legacy behind.
Born on 14th February 1901 in Barcelona, Zamora grew up and learned his craft in goalkeeping on the backstreets of the Catalan city. What started as a leisure activity in the neighborhood, it maneuvered Zamora’s interest in the game and transformed him into a guardian in between the sticks. Challenging and extreme measures to prevent the opposition from scoring often would end up in frayed clothes and bleeding elbows. His parents were unhappy about his pursuit to become a professional footballer as his father wanted him to inherit his field of medicine.
In 1913, Zamora was sent to attend university, which was a turning point in his life. Along with picking up nicotine addiction, he also joined a local team, Universitari SC, and started playing full-time football.
At the same time, the founder of Barcelona, Joan Gamper (Hans Kamper) was scouting for young and fresh talents across Catalonia to bolster the transitioning Blaugrana outfit. Gamper inadvertently encountered a young Zamora who was delivering a staggering performance in front of the goal. Enthralled by his astounding shot-stopping technique and anticipation along with the aplomb character on the pitch, Gamper encouraged him to pursue professional football. Despite acknowledging his talent, Gamper was unsure about recruiting him due to his age, which would make it difficult for him to serve as an immediate replacement at the club. However, at the age of fifteen in 1916, Zamora signed for the rivals Espanyol and made his debut at sixteen.
Pere Gibert, the starting goalkeeper for Espanyol was absent and the club approached young Zamora to accompany them on their trip to face Real Madrid. Zamora delivered an impressive performance against a Los Blancos led by Santiago Bernabeu. The match against Madrid announced the teenage sensational in the Spanish football and promised the starting spot ahead of Gibert. He safeguarded the Espanyol goal till 1919 and inspired them to lift the Campionat de Catalunya in 1918.
However, a dispute with one of the Blanquiazul directors resulted in him leaving the club and signing for the cross-town rivals Barcelona. Zamora dawned the garnet and the blue for the first time on 31st May 1919 in a friendly match against an international eleven consisting of players from the allied nations that had succeeded in the First World War (France, Belgium, and England).
The mere friendly match at the old Carrer Industria ground was in fact much more. It was a monumental instance for its symbolic representation of diplomacy and the introduction of two of the greatest players in the history of Blaugrana — Zamora and Josep Samitier. Both the players became the Blaugrana legends and defined the history of both Barcelona and Spanish football.
The 1920s witnessed the first footballing revolution in Spain. It was the dormant period for the political insurgencies in Catalonia, where the proletarian uprisings and anti-anarchist movements ceased temporarily. Instead, the populace was witnessing another revolution, the rise of the first golden generation at the Les Cortes. Moreover, it was the inception of the Spanish National Team as a major footballing power in world football. Zamora along with Samitier and Paulinho Alcantara were the three pivots responsible for the transformation of Barcelona in the 1920s. Zamora was selected to represent the Spanish national team in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.
It was the first-ever Spanish team to compete in an international tournament. He made his debut in La Roja’s first international match with a 1-0 victory over Denmark. Though the rampant Spaniards defeated in the final against Belgium, Zamora’s performance throughout the tournament established him as the best shot-stopper in the world.
It was an eventful tournament for Zamora in some other ways as well, who also grabbed some unwanted attention on and off the pitch. He was sent off in the match against Italy for punching and breaking the jaw of an opposing player. Another time, airport customs officials caught him smuggling Havana cigars across the Belgian border which caused the entire team to get detained and searched before leaving for Spain.
At Barcelona, he earned the nickname El Divino (The Divine One) and his road to stardom surviving the assaults from opposition attacks bagged massive applause from the Culés. He possessed an immense threat in anticipation to charge down attackers in his own box and had all the physical attributes that modern-day football demands from a player. Enormous, build stature, and nonchalant character, Zamora wore the iconic high-necked polo jumper and a hard cap and stood in front of the goal to wait for the unleashing thunderbolts and storm. His style was imitated by many of his contemporaries, who could mirror all but that nerve-wracking stare at your soul.
At Barca, he moulded into one of the athletic goalkeepers of the time. His agility and quick reflexes along with the physical superiority often perplexed the attack. Zamora helped Barcelona to lift two Copa del Rey titles and three Campionats de Catalunya. He led a lavish and celebrity life; in fact, he was the first one to explore the scope of marketing the sporting stardom in Spanish football. The Spaniard spent his time with Tango singer Carlos Gardel, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and drowning in his favorite cognac tipple. Zamora and Samitier had famous night outs in the 1920s, at the time when Barcelona was becoming one of the fashionable cities in Europe. There were poems and songs flattering his honor, cocktails were named after him. Zamora even acted in a film called ‘Zamora Weds At Last’.
Zamora’s three-year-long stint at Barcelona came to an end under some controversial circumstances. It was reported that in June 1922, Zamora allegedly asked the Barca board for a wage of 50,000 pesetas. He wanted a move back to Espanyol and Barca was reluctant to approve of the transfer. Even though he managed to convince them for the transfer; in 1922, a yearlong ban from the association for deceiving the tax authorities about the transfer fee resulted in delaying his return. Zamora stayed at Espanyol until 1930, guiding them to win their maiden Copa del Rey title, and also played the first La Liga season in 1929.
In 1930, Zamora’s performance with a broken sternum in an international friendly against England at Estadio Metropolitano de Madrid was enough for Madrid to pick him up for an astounding 150,000 pesetas, of which he personally received an enormous 40,000 pesetas, making him the highest-earning player in Europe of the time. Zamora’s eventual move to Madrid resulted in a downfall with his once admired Barça fans, who suspected him of having allegiance with anti-Catalan institutions.
At Madrid, Zamora partnered with the stopper-backs Ciriaco and Quincoces to form one of the best defenses by conceding just 15 goals from 18 matches in the league and lifted the first LaLiga title with an unbeaten record. The following season Los Blancos signed his compadre and Barca teammate Samitier and retained the league title by conceding only 17 goals. In spite of the disappointments in the league in 1934 and 1936, he guided them to lift the 1936 Copa del Rey trophy by playing a crucial role in the final against Barcelona. It was inarguably one of the best and crucial performances of his career.
The Cup final tie played at Valencia between Barcelona and Madrid was the last competitive match before the Civil war. The match was going into the final minutes with Madrid leading 2-1 and Barca was pressing high and surrounded Zamora alone in the box. After receiving the ball in the final third, an inform Jose Escola who already scored one back, fired the ball hard and low aiming for the inside post. The dry pitch was covered with blinding dust and it was obscuring the view. The crowd was already screaming and started celebrating the goal. When the dust was cleared, Zamora stood there indifferently holding the ball in his hand. A photograph that was taken near the post, the dive he pulled off seconds before the stupendous save remains one of the iconic images of a goalkeeper in the world of football. A photograph that broke the heart and soul of cules.
The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936. Zamora who had a sound relationship with the Franco regiment was captured by the left-wing militia and imprisoned at the Modelo prison. However ABC, a pro-nationalistic paper reported the execution of Zamora and finding his lifeless body in a canal-side in Moncloa district. Nationalistic forces used this as an opportunity to strengthen their propaganda.
Zamora hailed as a gallant victim of the radical left violence. Nationalists were able to exploit the commotion caused by the alleged death of Zamora and in 1934 he was awarded a medal of the Order of the Republic by his namesake by then president of the second Spanish republic, Niceto Zamora. Whilst all this was happening, Zamora was in fact living his life with his regular three-pack cigarettes and cognac in the town of Nice in France. He was partnered with Josep Samitier who fled the country for the same cause, for the third time to play for the local club OG Nice.
Zamora returned to his native in December 1938 to participate in a benefit match between Spain and Real Sociedad, for the Francoist militia. He was later honored by the Franco regiment by the Great Cross of the Order of Cisneros in the 1950s, an evident validation for the great services to the regime. Zamora died in 1978, leaving behind a rather complicated and memorable career. La Liga honoured his majestic contributions by naming the award (Ricardo Zamora Trophy) for the best goalkeeper in the league after him.
“As with so many figures from the dark ages of football, it is difficult to separate the truth from the misty-eyed recollections, but everyone seems to insist that Zamora was the greatest, better than Yashin, Zoff, Banks, Arconada, and any others you care to mention”.Phil Ball | Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football (2003)
He remains one of the most important figures in the history of Barcelona and in Spanish football. He might have left on bad terms, but the Blaugrana still adorns the impact and legacy that Zamora left behind. The golden generation of the 1920s was the foundation that established Barça as one of the best sporting entities in Spanish football. His magnetic presence in front of the goal not only won them trophies but inspired the generations of talents to pursue the keeping role. The times when goalkeepers were overlooked for their contributions and presence on the pitch, It was the ‘the divine one’ sent by the heavens to finally write a new testament for those who guard the goal post.