How Suarez broke Messi and Ronaldo’s duopoly on football
Despite the ideological contrast between player and team, Suarez has become the dynamo around which Barcelona now revolve
The sight of Barcelona at the top of La Liga is a familiar sight - after all, the Catalans have won six of the last eight Spanish championships after yet another title triumph on Saturday. There is a new name at the top of the sport’s goalscoring food chain, though. It was fitting that Luis Suarez’s hat-trick saw Barca over the line, because he - not Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo - has been football’s leading light this season. This is the new world order.
Indeed, the Uruguayan became the first player since Diego Forlan in 2009 to pull on the European Golden Shoe ahead of Messi and Ronaldo, scoring 60 goals in just 52 appearances. He still has the Copa Del Rey final against Sevilla to fill his already overflowing boots further. If the past decade will go down as the age of Messi in Spain, the 2015/16 campaign will be remembered as the rise of Suarez.
So how did he do it? Upon his signing for €82 million from Liverpool it was questioned whether Suarez would fit into a frontline already considered one of the best in Europe. He was viewed in many quarters as an unnecessary capture, with some cleaning Barcelona had only made the move as a pre-emptive strike before Real Madrid’s world record move for Gareth Bale the same summer. Suarez’s switch was one which had more to do with politicking than any great footballing need.
And yet there were signs from the off that Barcelona had stumbled across something very special when Suarez finally took to the Camp Nou pitch following the four month ban which stunted his initial development for the Catalans. Whether they truly meant it or not, Barca found the most potent frontline the game has ever seen - the MSN, as they have been labelled.
At first Suarez was the understudy to Messi’s, and even Neymar’s, brilliance. Where he would have taken the shot on himself as a Liverpool player, the Uruguayan would invariably set up a teammate at Barcelona. It goes some way to explaining why the striker - by trade an instinctive goalscorer - notched 17 assists in his first season for his new club.
But in time, following an astonishing treble triumph last year, Suarez became an equal, and this season more than that. Whereas before the 29-year-old was the supporting act he is now the headline act at Barcelona - quite the achievement given the pedigree at the Camp Nou. He now shoots more often and scores more often. If Barcelona claim a double of titles on Sunday it will be in no small part due to the difference Suarez has made.
"What Luis Suarez does for us, not just his goals, but his work and character, is why we decided to sign him,” manager Luis Enrique explained earlier in the season. "He has settled extraordinarily at Barcelona. He looks, not Catalan because Uruguayans could kill us, but he looks half-Catalan.”
It’s true that Suarez has settled better than anyone could have envisaged, but it is clash in styles between the striker and the club he plays for that makes him so important to Barca. Pep Guardiola established Barcelona as the best side-to-side team to have ever played the game. Suarez, however, has made the Catalans football’s best vertical side too. Barca had become somewhat predictable before his arrival two years ago. No longer.
The Uruguayan isn’t the archetypal Barcelona striker. There are times when he appears almost clumsy in possession, making a habit of bundling through opposition defences, wriggling out of spaces with the ball still at his feet. Every so often he fluffs his lines in front of goal too, only to invariably make amends moments later. Just as there is with Messi, there is something unexplainable about Suarez’s talent.
But despite the ideological contrast between player and team, Suarez has become the dynamo around which Barcelona now revolve. For the best part of a decade the question has been asked: who will break Messi and Ronaldo’s duopoly? Now there might be an answer, although how Suarez came to be so good is another matter altogether.