At Ajax he blended talent with frustration, but now Liverpool's Uruguayan star is destroying all in the Premier League. Michael Cox discusses the evolution of the Reds' freescoring front-man...
When separating top-class footballers from mere pretenders, a crucial aspect to consider is decision making. “It’s not about how to shoot, and how to pass,” the great Pele once opined. “It’s about knowing when to shoot, and when to pass.” Football has changed drastically since the Brazilian was football’s greatest player, but this concept still applies.
The best modern-day case study is Luis Suarez. His development from an immensely talented but eternally frustrating forward, into the best striker in the Premier League, is almost solely because his decision making has improved immeasurably. The evolution into a top-class footballer is sometimes about confidence, sometimes about physicality, and sometimes about tactics. But Suarez was always confident, always physical, and he’s versatile enough that tactics don’t significantly affect his game. Instead, the key is all about him making the right choices.
The most fascinating aspect about Suarez’s 2013/14 campaign is not his goalscoring tally alone – 24 goals in 23 starts to date, the most in the Premier League. The most fascinating factor is that he’s also leading the Premier League’s assist table, having created 10 goals. That’s not to say his assists are more important or more meaningful than his goals – the key is that he’s found balance between scoring and providing, and has become the best in the Premier League at both.
Sometimes a prolific goalscorer can be too selfish, and damage his side’s all-round play – Ruud van Nistelrooy, another Eredivisie import, was a good example. Suarez is a completely different type of player, but he was previously too dominant within his side, without using that dominance for the good of the team overall. He shot from silly angles and lost the ball when ambitiously attempting to dribble past opponents. Now, perhaps with more faith in the ability of his team-mates, in particular Daniel Sturridge, he’s an all-rounder.
Go back to Suarez’s days at Ajax, and the problem becomes clear. His goalscoring record with the Dutch club was excellent – 111 in 159 games in all competitions, including 49 in 48 during his final complete season, 2009/10. Even if Eredivisie goalscoring stats can exaggerate a player’s true ability, it was clear that Suarez was primarily a goalscorer, despite starting on the right of a front three rather than in the centre-forward position.
When you inspected his play more closely, however, Suarez was often a real pain. This was especially noticeable in the Champions League, where Ajax were playing against a better standard of opponent, and Suarez attempted to take on the opposition solo.
Look at his attempted dribbles in Ajax’s home matches against Milan and Auxerre, for example, and you find an infuriating player who was dispossessed far too often.
It’s the same story with his shots – often taken from crazy angles, or from outside the box. He hardly ever forced a save from the opposition goalkeeper.
To a certain extent, Suarez had similar problems in his first couple of seasons at Liverpool. A home defeat to Arsenal told the story – Liverpool dominated the entire match yet were beaten 2-1, primarily because Robin van Persie scored on two rare occasions he received possession, something Suarez was unable to replicate despite being much more involved. Again, he was dispossessed too frequently and shot from difficult angles.
This season, Suarez’s decision making is much better. He dribbles less (but more successfully), and plays more productive passes to his team-mates. That was evident against Norwich.
And this, let’s remember, was a match where he scored a hat-trick...
Despite his incredible goal statistics, Suarez is actually shooting less than last season – but his statistics in almost every other area have risen. He’s less focused upon being the star, and now determined to play a key role as both goalscorer and provider. When he does shoot, he’s doing so from more favourable positions, and this means he has the Premier League’s highest chance conversion rate this season, compared to the second-lowest last season.
That turnaround is about being cooler and more composed in front of goal. However, the major change has been what goes on in Suarez’s head. It remains the difference between a good player, and a great one.