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.
Josep Samitier, the artist and hero of Barcelona’s first golden age
Josep Samitier was a surrealist artist on and off the pitch and a legendary midfielder that brought Barcelona its first successful era in the 1920s, as well as some controversy throughout his career.
Surrealism, a deceptive interrogation of reality that transcends the human subconscious to manipulate or alter the coherent understanding of existence. Josep Samitier Vilalta, or “L’home llagosta” (The lobster man) was the most surreal portrait in the history of FC Barcelona. He was called the ‘surrealista’, because his genius produced the illusions on the pitch that were perplexing to fathom as reality.
History is constructed up on the interdependency of figures and events. Samitier was one of those figures who created a rift in the annals of world football to produce the first reverberation of football in the streets of Barcelona. The footballing revolution in Catalonia peaked in the early 1920s, especially in Barcelona, as it was the beginning of the first golden age.
With the construction of the Les Corts stadium, the club assembled a group of talented, young players. Josep Samitier, along with Paulino Alcántara, Ricardo Zamora, Emili Sagi-Barba, Vicenç Piera and Agustín Sancho became the first generation of the club idols. Samitier, among others, was an integral part of Barcelona’s rebuilding of character and went on to become one of the most significant personalities both in terms of sporting and cultural relevance.
Samitier was born on 2nd February 1902 in a Catalan working-class family. As a young boy in the streets of Barcelona where the roads of passion and dreams lead to the grant Les Corts, ‘El Sami’ would kick the ball around waving at the passing commons.
After the club’s establishment, FC Barcelona had quite an attachment with the proletarian class. Especially at the time of industrial unrest, the institution always kept them close and the stadium was always packed with the same working-class populace. Young minds like Samitier who would grow up in the streets of Barcelona always had the ball on their feet and club in their heart.
Samitier started playing for FC Internacional before making his debut for Barcelona at the age of 17 in 1919. The club museum still preserves and cherishes his signing bonuses, a shimmering watch and a three-piece suit. By 1925, Samitier became the highest-paid player at the club and thus became the highest-earning player in the country.
The division of labour was evident in the early years of European football. Whilst the backline remained static to protect the goal, the forward line had to pick and fight the battle on their own. Samitier was among the key figures who created a paradigm shift from this prevailing ‘Basque style’, where the attackers held the sole responsibility to win the ball and navigate their own way to find a goal. Samitier was among the first players to orchestrate the game from the back. He was like a master of the opera performance where he controlled and navigated the rhythm and flow of the game.
Josep Samitier (middle), alongside teammates Emili Sagi-Barba (left) and Vicenç Piera (right) from the successful Barcelona team of the 1920s | Photo by FC Barcelona
Samitier was an exceptional player who could manipulate the ball like a wizard, and he dribbled the ball around the pitch like a ballet dancer. He was the first midfielder general in the history of Spanish football, whose role was the hybrid between a Pivote (central midfielder) and the Leñero (chopper) or sweeper. Samitier was the harbinger of the modern-day box-to-box role. Despite being positioned in a deep-lying role, Samitier was an outstanding goalscorer. It was rather unusual for a midfielder of that time to score an astonishing 184 goals for any club in Europe.
Even though Barcelona was graced with many prolific players, Samitier was the core of the magnificent Barça team of the 1920s. He would hack the ball from the opposition to carry the ball from the midfield to provide a line-breaking pass in the final third. His glorious days at Les Corts were filled with thrilling langosta (lobster) kicks which would eventually evolve into the modern ‘chilena’ or bicycle-kick. Samitier was an entertainer on the pitch. His ostentatious performance attracted the Catalans into the stadium.
His glittering thirteen years in a blaugrana shirt were decorated with 11 Catalan Championships, 5 Spanish Championships and the first Spanish league that began in 1928. Moreover, his time with Barça was embellished with title-winning goals in the Copa del Rey finals of 1922, 1925, 1926 and 1928.
Pepe Samitier’s momentous career at Barcelona transformed him from a sporting figure to a cultural icon in Catalan society. His reputation at the club produced a strong political outline for himself among the intellectuals in the society. It was an unprecedented period in the socio-cultural scenario of Europe. The entrée of subjective art and understanding by Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh among other artistic prominence overtook the existing concepts of impressionism and naturalism.
Samitier aligned with surrealism, indulging the spirit of subjectivity. He reflected this both in the game and in his outside loyalties. His acquaintances mostly consist of radical artists and political figures of the time, including the tango maestro Carlos Gardel, Mauricio Chevalier, Salvador Dalí and, in contrast to his idol figure in Catalonia, he also had a close relationship with the dictator Franco.
In 1933, after a dramatic feud with the Barcelona management, an ageing El Sami dropped from the first team. Real Madrid, then called Madrid CF, took advantage of this dispute and were able to convince him to join the club. However, it was his secret allegiance with General Franco that helped Madrid to accomplish the operation.
Even though his short stint at Madrid wasn’t really celebrated, Samitier did guide them to win the La Liga title in 1932/33 and the Copa de España in 1934. But he played a significant role for Madrid, not as a player but as a super-agent in a decade-defining transfer of Alfredo Di Stéfano, whose intended destination was Barcelona. This signing was the inflexion point for Madrid in the 1960s, as Di Stéfano would go on to score 216 goals and play an important role in their European domination. Although Samitier’s allegiance with General Franco was visible, this transfer saga threw the relationship open into society.
Real Madrid’s signing of Alfredo Di Stéfano (right) changed Real Madrid’s history forever | Photo by Staff / AFP via Getty Images
Before the Spanish civil war burst out in 1936, Samitier spent a brief time in managing Atlético de Madrid, succeeding Fred Pentland in the middle of the season, but failed to keep them in the first division. Nonetheless, the season was scrapped as soon as the civil war started and Samitier, who had strong ties with the nationalist side, found himself blacklisted and arrested by the anarchist militia.
Eventually, he was released by the militia and fled to France. His exile to France was later utilized by the Franco regiment to spread the anti-communist propaganda by portraying this event in a film titled ‘The Stars Search for Peace’, where Samitier enacted himself. During his time in France, Samitier joined OGC Nice as a player, where he would unite with his old teammate Zamora. He went onto score 47 goals in 82 matches. In 1939, he retired as a footballer and briefly managed OGC Nice in 1942.
After two years and 8 months, the civil war ended and the nationalists alliance under General Franco demolished the second Spanish republic to establish the new Spanish state. Josep Samitier returned to Spain in 1944, and he took charge of Barcelona. His homecoming was celebrated as he guided Barcelona to win their second-ever La Liga title in 1945 and lifted the Copa de Oro Argentina by beating the Copa del Generalísimo winners Athletic Club de Bilbao.
Subsequently, Samitier became the chief scout of the club and his keen vision in recognising the talent resulted in the discovery and recruitment of Ladislao Kubala, a player who went on to become a legend at Barcelona. The recruitment of Kubala was the status redemption for Samitier, who had lost its shine after the Di Stéfano transfer saga.
In 1972, Samitier rested his soul and left his showmanship and sorcery to cherish in the memories of Catalans. Despite serving Madrid and his close relationship with General Franco, he was given an honourable state funeral as a Catalan hero. Samitier was the most symbolic player in the history of the club. His close affiliation with both the cultural and sporting context of Barcelona formed an irrevocable stature of him in the Catalan society.
Samitier, as a footballing visionary, is a reference to the modern-day midfielders and, on the other hand, he was an imperative cultural icon who embraced a revolutionary socio-cultural movement in his life. Samitier’s journey from being an ambitious boy in the streets of Barcelona to a footballing legend remains one of the inspiring and reviving narrative in the history of the game. Even today, walking down the Josep Samitier Street, one could still gather an enigmatic chanting celebrating the greatest artist in the history of Barcelona.