The anguish of Luis Suarez

During the second half of the Valencia match, the camera focused on Luis Suarez in closeup, and held that gaze. What we saw wasn’t pretty.

Suarez looked pained, like the person on the tracks who sees the headlight, knows that it is a train yet can’t do anything about it.

And during the match, in the days after, we rip and tear at the carcass, as if Suarez himself doesn’t wish that he could do better, wish that he could magically return to that magician for whom Barça paid 82 million Euros, a sum that now seems a pittance. He understands. And even as someone who really has no flippin’ idea if this is the case, allow the poetic license that his anguished look was that of a man who understands his situation and is powerless to stop it.

Every aging athlete has that moment when a decision is required. Everything is right. Situation, placement, moment, knowledge — everything. Then you do what you do, and the result is all very, very different. It is next to impossible to know what to do in a situation such as that, when you’re an athlete whose life has been defined by the battle, the cut and thrust. As a cycling track sprinter, my moment came during a race, when everything was perfect. All that was required was to accelerate, stuff the bars in the hole, spread the elbows and post up for the cameras. The brain knew what to do, the synapses fired, the legs rolled and what used to be a nice, easy 40+ mph was upper 30s.

And the moment was gone. It seems as though it happens just like that, but it doesn’t. Like a car’s performance that deteriorates over time, the magic ekes away in dribbles and drabs. We have to consider the question, what if this is the new normal for Luis Suarez? What if this is all that he has left?

Observers of the game always watched him and predicted this, that the bottom would drop out precipitously, that his thick muscles and heavy step, his rage and willingness to fight, would crash hard. For those who wanted to look closely, the signs were there — missed shots, botched passes, moments that Former Suarez would have smoked, but Current Suarez comes up short. And we scream. “How could you miss that?!” “How are you offside yet again?!”

Suarez was offside six times against Valencia. He leads the Liga in that category. As a forward, he always presses the limit, always dances around the line. With age and decline comes the pressing. The great Flippo Inzaghi, the quip went, was born offside. But as he aged, the offside calls mounted as he had to play it closer and closer to get some kind of advantage against the younger, more agile defenders who jobs it was to thwart his ambition.

Getting caught offside as an attack starts is a sign. A young striker pops back and forth, darting those few strides to always stay in line with the defense. It’s hard to catch a gazelle offside, because it doesn’t have to be. As miles pile up in the legs, conservation starts. I’ll move on later, as the ball circulates. But with a team like Barça where the ball circulates like a windmill, later is often too late. The pass comes, and you are offside. Worse still, your teammates see that you are off and you aren’t a passing option at all.

Suarez went from a vibrant part of the best attack in football, pinging the ball around and darting hither and yon to a ficus tree, rooted to a spot, shouldering aside a defender to gain position for a ball that is never going to come. There is so much depending on you, so many people looking at you to do what you do, and you aren’t as adept as you used to be.

And he knows it.

The years that you spend with your body as an athlete build in knowledge. You understand when you are good, when you are bad. Dembele in a few years won’t have the injury that he picked up, because he will understand his body better. When you are 19, what do you know? Everything is perfect, comes back fast. You don’t have aches, and niggles, don’t need nine hours of sleep or that shin kick that you took yesterday still throbs. You’re always ready to go. At 30, it’s all different. You know when you are good, when you are bad, when you are doing what you need to do, when you know what to do but just can’t.

When Iniesta talked about coming to grips with a feeling that he was having about continuing at Barça, it’s easy to speculate that it was this feeling, this notion of asking whether he could still help the team that he grew up with and in weighing on his mind. We see it with Iniesta as well, the knowledge coming short of the physical capability. But his game is different, still silk, still influence more than finishing. Every now and again he will plop a weak shot at the keeper, but everyone knows it will be saved, but he has to try, because that’s what you do.

Suarez missing shots that he used to make went from a frustration on the part of supporters, a “He’ll get the next one,” to wondering and watching his movement, seeing that he is arriving at the spot a fraction of a moment later and with less alacrity, which gives him less time to make the precise, correct decision with the ball. And it goes wide or high when before, it was always true. It isn’t just control that gives you time, but also pace and quickness. You get to a spot with plenty of time to take the pass, then fight with the defender for shooting space. As it takes more time to get to the spot, the defender is now there waiting for you, and taking the pass becomes a multitask, because you have to now battle the defender at the same time. It happens just like that.

You know. Masters cycling competition, the age group stuff, is full of riders like me who are still fast, almost fast enough to compete at the national level, but lack that last little bit. We still adore the sport, still love the training and the racing, but it’s all different. The hook we would throw as a young rider, risking a crash, now makes us think, “I, and my competitor, have to work on Monday. Calm yourself.” It happens automatically. There is no masters category for an aging striker, just the glare of the spotlight as one of the best teams in world football needs your input, your gifts, and you have nothing to offer.

Movement and influence through that movement? Sure, you can offer that. But your job is to put the ball in the net, not slide defenders around like chess pieces, and you understand that. You aren’t doing your job. You have five goals in 12 matches, one more than a Brazlian midfielder whose job is really that of a facilitator.

Valverde played Paco Alcacer in tandem with Suarez, a move that gained him some time by giving him a foil. Alcacer thrived more than Suarez, because reality is still cruel, but Suarez had more space, more playing distance to compensate for the little bit of extra time he now needs to execute the same task. We wonder about his touch, and it isn’t the touch. It’s that with less time, everything has to happen more quickly and in that haste, fine detail is a casualty. It seems like Umtiti has all the time in the world to control a ball and move it along, because he does. He’s young, his feet are quick, his pace is as high as his skill. At 30, when the gate often slams on footballers in the modern game, Suarez doesn’t have the same luxiries.

We compensate, say his form will come back, believe in that magical moment of which great players are capable. The same kind of thinking is happening in Madrid, where a 32-year-old Ronaldo is battling those same forces. His coach too, as does Valverde, continues to play him because you believe in the iconic veteran, that today will be the day. A coach watches, and he knows, because that coach is a former player who understands all too well what happens.

Messi is an alien. He is 30, but it doesn’t really matter all that much for him. Rakitic is 29, and maybe the “What the hell is wrong with Ivan,” questions are as simple as, “He’s almost 30 and has a lot of football in his legs.” He knows too.

Great athletes are too good for “Well but,” as in “Well, but look at how he made that defender move.” Especially when we used to say, “Look at how he gutted that defender before smoking the ball into the net.” The difference between those two things is a step. Not much, but everything, a defining second that makes all the difference, a difference about which Luis Suarez knows.

And every now and again, in the quiet moments during lulls in the battle, the camera focuses and we see, understand and it hurts a little bit to see that pain. So maybe you scream a little less loud the next time he misses a sitter or bollixes a pass, because that look of anguish lingers — that hurt. Suarez knows. What is next, however, nobody knows.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

13 Comments

  1. georgjorge
    November 27, 2017

    What a great article, and sad. Because it isn’t just Suarez but almost every footballer playing at the top level. There might be some who are totally fine with having earned a heap of money and not having to go through all these exercises anymore, but I expect success at the top level to be quite addictive to most.

    Luis Suarez doesn’t look at all like a player who would be satisfied with playing anywhere but top level, or being a replacement. But maybe – if his age and lack of energy is indeed the problem – he could come to terms with it, and be a super-sub while another striker is signed in the winter or summer.

  2. squeen
    November 27, 2017

    Sad be true about his pace, but also remember one of the things Suarez was suppose to fix was muscle-in-the-box when teams park the bus against an unplayable midfield. There will still be a need for that at Barca.

  3. Davour
    November 27, 2017

    A magnificent text, Kxevin. Like a eulogy of powers fled, while the mind still works. It is a weird feeling, knowing what to do but your body doesn’t comply. Anyone with experience of sports will know this. Even now, years after playing for real, I am baffled at the discrepancy between what I know and can see, and what my body agrees to do when finding myself with a football, even just joking around. To experience this decline, when being on top of the world, must be excruciating, millions of euros withstanding.

    I hope Suarez will find a way around this, for a final stretch, reinventing himself somehow. First step would likely be playing less, however, and he does not seem inclined to accept that just yet. Maybe Dembele’s return will do wonders for the team, including Luis, but I would not count on it. He looks finished. But I would love to be wrong. Still, there is a limit; a point when EV must say, ‘enough’, and dare play him less. Give him the final 20-30, when defenders are tired. See what happens.

  4. Víctor
    November 27, 2017

    Isn’t this a recurring phenomenon at Barça as of late? Strikers struggling with proper ball-control, being offside, missing sitters? Happened with David Villa, Alexis Sanchez. Maybe even Eto’o. (Although I admit that I may not be remembering properly)

    Suarez’s issue doesn’t seem to be only age, at least for me. He is 30, soon he will be 31. However, that’s still a good age for a striker to be on good form. I think Neymar’s departure plays a bigger deal on that and, perhaps, Ernesto Valverde’s style of play.

    Of course, given that Ernesto Valverde is doing great (that won’t stop that naysayers from awaiting a loss to scream “Valverde out!”, sadly) I think that maybe he should consider play Alcacer over Suarez, perhaps.

  5. luisthebeast
    November 27, 2017

    What Suarez needs is peace in his mind.
    What the team needs badly is a LW,Dembele back and a CM.
    In January it will be difficult but they must try.
    Only fools cant see that we lack quality in certain areas of the field.
    Dead meats out ASAP.

  6. luisthebeast
    November 27, 2017

    I cant really blame Valverde,i mean ok we needed badly a great CM and these guys signed Paulinho.
    We needed a Neymar replacement and they signed nobody.
    My expectations were nt great but i see a coach who work and have a clear plan.
    I hope they will help him in January.

  7. PPos
    November 27, 2017

    Come in Timo Werner, yeah Suarez is aging, it’s true. I see it, you see it. I really don’t think Suarez would settle for super-sub. In his mind, he’s a sure starter. He has been all of his life. Such is life. Sport is cruel that way, the pass of time comes sooner or later.

  8. Hamid
    November 28, 2017

    Totally agree with Victor. Is there a physical factor in Suarez decline? Maybe. But there is an undeniable tactical element in the lack of scoring opportunities. Suarez thrived when he had Messi on the right and Neymar on the left. With the new focus on the midfield and ball-control, he seems to evolve in a silo. I won’t cast him off though. He is hard-working, resourceful, likes the team and has a flair for goal-scoring. Valverde would need to provide him with the support he needs in January. Dembele isn’t enough.

    • Davour
      November 28, 2017

      To be fair, last year was not great for him either, despite Neymar.

  9. Jim
    November 28, 2017

    Eh, I’ve been trying to stay out of this, I really have, because my views on this. …… ( am I allowed to call it mince – the least pejorative Scottish term I can think of? ) are well known. However, sorry Davour, but I have my limits ! Just to remind everyone last year Luis Suarez finished second only to Messi and three ahead of Ronaldo in goals ( probably a squillion ahead of Neymar ) and actually topped La Liga in assists. That was a whole six months ago.

    Has the whole world gone mad ? Luis Suarez is only 30, has missed matches due to an ongoing knee problem, played since then while obviously unfit because we’ve no one else, we are currently playing with ONE up front against heavy defences with a non creative midfield and having lost arguably the third best creative player in the world who is unreplaced and all of a sudden he has lost everything ? Mind you, same happened to Messi last year I seem to remember. For one, I’m pretty glad that Messi will “never be the same player again !”

    Sorry, I know this is a rant but if there’s one thing that gets my goat in this space it’s the constant ageism in striving to be first to write off someone when they get to 30. (No, there are actually two things. Suarez has borne the brunt of undeserved criticism from some since he arrived and the facts just don’t justify that. ) Xavi, Iniesta, now increasingly Pique have all fallen victim to this attitude. None of the above, or Suarez, have lived off pace much if at all in their career and if anyone has actually tried to get the ball off a slow talented midfielder who has wing mirrors, welcome to the hell of my younger years in football. It’s impossible. With a forward, its reading the game, anticipation and making the right runs that gets you goals otherwise Inaki Williams who has doubtless also lost a step because he’s not scoring either (!) wouldn’t be languishing below Suarez at the moment as are Ronaldo, Benzema, Griesmann to name just a few. Tell all this to Pirlo, one of the top midfielders of the last five years who has just retired at 38!

    I’m reduced to feeling like Woody at the end of his tether ( see what I did there ? ) in Toy Story as he tells Buzz he’s just a toy :

    “THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH SUAREZ ! ”

    He’s always lived offside, he’s always missed sitters – so has every top forward I’ve ever known. He’s not slow – would anyone seriously put money on Rakitic beating him in a twenty metre dash, for example ? For goodness’ sake let’s try to take the longer view, guys.

    No, come back to me at the end of the season and if things don’t improve then we can have a conversation…

    Jeez ! ( Ducks . . . )

    🙂

    • November 29, 2017

      JIm:)- I mostly agree with almost all of your comments here and Suarez is one in which I beg to differ. However, in this particular point am with you. Just because he is 30, he cant be written off. That is a bit too much on him. Even Messi and Iniesta were accused as ‘not same anymore’ here, and within a few games they were praised again immensely. so ..

      But on the other aspects I still disagree with you. Yes, he works hard enough and when is on excellent form he is a near perfect striker, the exact no.9 Barca was looking for, a huge improvement from Zlatan and so on. But when he is not, he looks like a real pain to carry, am afraid.

  10. Jim
    November 29, 2017

    I think you’re right when you say he looks bad when he’s not on his game, probably more noticeably than most, Fotobirajesh.

    For me, though, even when he’s not playing well he’s helping the team. There have been quite a few occasions this season when, although he hasn’t got the assist he has made the goal possible with his run or by blatantly blocking a defender from interfering. It’s often not something you see on a first viewing.

    The other thing I’d say is that there is a big difference between early in the season when his touches were all genuinely bad and he looked totally rusty and now when I would argue he is actually playing well enough but just not getting enough touches in their box and that comes back to where we are having our possession and how many bodies we get into the box to help him. I could be completely wrong about this but if Dembele is half the player folks around here think he is we’ll see a totally different Suarez after Christmas.

  11. Víctor
    November 29, 2017

    It’s true, Jim, Suarez’s numbers during last season were quite good. In fact, very good. However, you also gotta consider that he also lost many chances, many attacks died in his feet and he failed many sitters as well. That’s why he has that criticism.

    Sure thing, the same applies for Neymar, as far as good he is… he also lost many chances and failed important chances last season. That’s why I think that Neymar, while very great player, isn’t at the level of Messi or CR7 for that matter. Those two (Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo) are still the two best forwards of the game.

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