The returning Uruguayan is far from a like-for-like replacement for the injured playmaker, but could, in a deeper role than usual, perform a key creative function in his absence
By Alex Hess
Such is the turbulence of today’s top-end football narratives that, in the course of a week, Liverpool have gone from an outside bet for title-contention to a side that are in desperate need of their returning talisman, Luis Suarez, in order to arrest a potential slump.
In reality, of course, neither extreme was ever wholly true. Just as their residence at the division’s zenith was only ever going be temporary, there’s no need, after only four points dropped, for anyone at Anfield to go eyeing up the panic button just yet.
That said, the nature of those dropped points – coming in a chaotic 2-2 draw with Swansea and Saturday’s abject loss to Southampton – has emphasised the potentially pivotal effect of Suarez’s impending return, following the shoulder injury suffered by Philippe Coutinho at the Liberty Stadium which will keep the Brazilian out for six weeks.
Brendan Rodgers’ revelation that Suarez is “chomping at the bit” to return to the side may have prompted winces within the Anfield PR department but the Ulsterman’s choice of syntax nonetheless hints at the unparalleled energy and vigour that the striker can inject into a team that looked startlingly lethargic on Saturday.
Suarez will have preferred to re-enter Liverpool’s side at the pinnacle of its attack, from where he accomplished so much beautiful destruction last season, but with Daniel Sturridge currently occupying that position so imperiously and with the side’s chief creator newly felled, it’s a supporting attacker’s berth that’s almost certain to be filled by Suarez for his first run of games since April.
With hindsight, it is no surprise to see that Liverpool’s recent drop in form has corresponded so directly with Coutinho’s departure from the side. The Brazilian has not, so far this term, quite enjoyed the sort of dazzlingly productive form that marked the back-end of his previous campaign but, as tends to be the case with players who deal in his brand of subtlety, his ongoing importance to Liverpool’s play has only really been appreciated in his recent absence.
Liverpool were leading 2-1 at the Liberty Stadium with the momentum in their favour when Ashley Williams hung out a cynical leg to upend the playmaker; after his resultant withdrawal, the visitors played out the remainder of the game unable to match Swansea’s sharp midfield ball-play with any of their own and were fortunate to come away with a point.
This dearth of invention continued into the defeat to Southampton, when Liverpool huffed, puffed and huffed again, but left Mauricio Pochettino’s house standing firm, only able to trouble Artur Boruc with long-range set-pieces and speculative efforts from a quarantined, frustrated Sturridge.
To quantify the change prompted by Coutinho’s injury: the 21-year-old made 42 passes in his 55 minutes on the field against Swansea, while his replacement Iago Aspas managed only 12 throughout the game’s final 40 minutes.
In his last Anfield start, against Aston Villa, Coutinho, on what was one of his more pedestrian days, completed 35 balls to team-mates. On Saturday at Anfield, Aspas and his half-time replacement Raheem Sterling totalled less than half that between them.
There is an element of false comparison here, of course, in that the high-pressing workhorse Aspas is a wholly different player to the silk-booted Coutinho, one with a distinct skill set – and likewise Sterling. The pertinent point, though, is that the current Liverpool side are sorely missing a creator to splice its back six and front four into one cohesive unit.
And yet, while the scene may be set for the returning hero to cure all the above ills, Luis Suarez’s reintegration will not be a straightforward remedy to Liverpool’s playmaking problems.
In actual fact, Suarez, existing as he does within his own hundred-mile-an-hour whirl of demented rage, resembles Aspas’ busy playing style more than he does Coutinho’s harmonious one. This is not to say he can’t perform the much-needed role of link-man, more that he’s likely to do so with a different approach.
With the Uruguayan set to be reintroduced, possibly in Wednesday’s trip to Old Trafford, as part of a fluid three playing behind Sturridge, Suarez will likely perform the vital duty of carrying the ball into the final third with his signature frenzied directness, providing the link between midfield and attack with high-paced dribbling rather than canny ball-playing.
He could hardly be more cut out for the job. Across last season, the 26-year-old averaged the most successful dribbles per game (2.9) than any player in the league. With the majority of these runs taking place in and around opponents’ teeming penalty boxes, Suarez should find even greater joy driving at the opposition from deeper, less congested areas.
To cast Suarez as a simple ball-carrier, though, is to do the striker an injustice. Though twisting defenders’ blood with breakneck dribbling is clearly his greatest asset, he is a dab hand at dissecting a defence, too – only David Silva (3.3 per game) and set-piece specialist Leighton Baines (3.1) played more key balls than Suarez (2.7) last term.
Daniel Sturridge, despite his predatory form, has hardly been provided with a deluge of chances so far this campaign, and, with or without Coutinho’s lockpicking, he will surely welcome the introduction of Suarez’s high-spec, forward-charging assistance.
Despite his likely deep starting berth, Suarez will be keen to make his presence felt in the penalty box too, and in that respect can offer Sturridge the short-passing options that Coutinho, who prefers to stay behind play, did not. The two strikers yielded seven goals in as many starts together last term, with a 5-0 humbling of Norwich in January especially hinting at a potentially fertile understanding between the pair.
It may be an open secret that Suarez would rather be at a club competing for ownership of the Champions League trophy rather than one whose highest hopes rest merely in qualifying for it, but other than re-reading the small print on his contract, there’s little he can do to engineer a transfer at this point beyond demonstrating his elite-level quality for his current employer.
Certainly, few would doubt that Suarez, ever the protagonist, will return to the nation’s back pages as soon as he returns to Liverpool’s frontline. The trick for Rodgers is making sure that he does so for reasons of footballing genius rather than imprudent misbehaviour.
Suarez is equally capable of both, and brings no guarantees. We await his return in earnest.
All stats from WhoScored.com
Follow Alex Hess on