How Luis Suarez is already helping Messi knock Ronaldo off his perch

The Uruguayan couldn't start his season until the end of October but is already resembling the player who took the Premier League by storm, writes Lee Roden...

Barcelona had to wait for Luis Suarez, but it was worth it. It’s no coincidence that the two strongest performances of the Luis Enrique era have arrived just as the striker starts to get comfortable in his new surroundings. The Uruguayan’s impact on Barça’s game can’t be overstated: not only is he improving their attacking play, he’s also helping them defend more effectively.

Perhaps best of all for the Catalans, he has revived Lionel Messi’s love affair with the goal. Suarez is changing Barça, and has given them a mid-season lift that opponents will need to work hard to come to grips with.

Leading from the front

Barcelona have scored nine goals and conceded one (an own goal) in their last two fixtures. Enrique’s team look better over the course of 90 minutes than earlier this season, and a big part of that is their more consistent and effective pressing in the opponent’s half.

Suarez has been key. Against APOEL, Catalan commentator Joaquim Maria Puyal remarked that it has been “a long, long time since Barça had a striker with this kind of strength and work-rate”. Considering the broadcaster has been covering the club since the 1960s, he’s in a good position to comment.

While Suarez doesn’t always win the ball back himself, his relentless harrying of defenders encourages companions to press with him. On Tuesday, led by the Uruguayan’s charge, Barça players ranging from advanced midfielders (Rafinha), to the pivot (Javier Mascherano) and defenders (Jordi Alba) all won possession high up the pitch. 

With the entire team pushing up rather than a handful of players doing so intermittently, Barcelona have more options close to the ball when they win it back, and are better placed to use it effectively in danger areas.

Earlier this season Barcelona’s pressing tended to drop off after a short period of time, but it is now more consistent, with Suarez leading by example.

After the final whistle on Tuesday, Enrique specifically noted that his team were  “excellent in pressing after losing the ball”, adding: “If we always play like this it will be difficult for opponents to beat us.”

It should be easier for Barça to beat their opponents too, with effective pressing increasing the chances of catching rivals out of position. It certainly made a difference against APOEL: before Tuesday the Cypriots had conceded no more than one goal in each of their Champions League matches this season. Against Barça they shipped four. The first came via the Blaugrana’s new No.9.

The Suarez turn

Not only Barcelona’s most influential figure but the inventor of the football’s most famous turn, Johan Cruyff would be proud with the way the club’s newest forward is using his own particular swivel to good effect.

Suarez combined spatial awareness, technique and timing for his goal against APOEL. As Alba played the ball towards him, the Uruguayan had his back to Joao Guilherme, but by the time it reached his feet he was already on the half turn. Playing the ball through Guilherme’s legs with a subtle touch while spinning to attack the space, Suarez left the defender for dead and himself in the perfect position to shoot.

Opponents have a dilemma when trying to tackle the forward: allow him to receive the ball in space while facing you, and risk letting him pick out a pass or take a shot. Get tight in an effort to prevent that, and he can turn you inside out with ease. There is no easy option available.

The move is one Suarez has used frequently in recent weeks, and a similar turn later in the second half saw Guilherme booked. The Uruguayan’s approach is different to Barca’s other forwards. Neymar, for example, is less explosive in the final third, preferring to face rivals with the ball and trying to undo them that way.

Suarez’s own unique style has diversified Barcelona’s attacking play, and with Enrique looking for more vertical passes from the midfielders, the team should have plenty of opportunities to exploit this characteristic.

Understanding Messi

The arrival of Suarez seems to have revitalised Messi, who at the time of his last contract renewal, asked Barcelona’s board to construct a competitive team capable of competing with the best. Until only a few weeks ago the common narrative was that a heavy-legged La Pulga would no longer focus on scoring goals but would be relegated to creating them.

Instead, quite the opposite has happened: Messi has scored eight goals in six games since Suarez made his official debut in October. That flood of strikes arrived following a significant change in the pair’s positioning, starting with Barça’s 2-0 win over Ajax on November 5.

Pinning exact positions on players like Messi, Suarez and Neymar can be tricky given they like to interchange, but examining where they receive the ball is a useful marker. Against Real Madrid the Argentie No.10 wandered all over the pitch to try to influence play, rarely to great effect.

In the second half of the Ajax game, however, Suarez started to take up a more central role with Messi to the right, and Barcelona’s performance improved considerably. It wasn’t an individual solution to an individual fixture, as the same change occurred a few days later in the second half of Barça’s 2-1 win over Almeria (the Uruguayan’s turn again on show for the equaliser). Was Enrique onto something? 

The coach clearly liked what he saw, because in Saturday’s game against Sevilla, Suarez in the middle and Messi on the right was the norm rather than a late tactical change.

Starting Messi in this position is nothing new, but getting him to play there effectively is something that hasn’t happened since 2009. When Gerardo Martino attempted to use his compatriot there last year, the player often looked isolated.

With Suarez in the team, it’s a different story. Messi thrives when he has other intelligent attackers around him to associate with. With more space on the right, a panoramic view of play and Suarez’s smart movement begging for a pass, the Argentine can use his left foot to maximum effect.

Suarez’s movement is varied, and it is increasingly well synchronised with his strike partner. Sometimes he will stay central and occupy defenders to give Messi room to breathe, or he will switch things up by vacating the space and allow Messi to cut inside and shoot.

On other occasions he will look to play quick one-twos with the No.10 close to goal, as in the example below. With Messi on the right and Suarez in the middle for the majority of the APOEL and Sevilla games, the pair scored a collective seven goals, so Enrique is likely to stick with the formula going forward.  

Skip to 3:32

Late but great

An inability to play until October led to questions about how well Suarez would perform this season, but he has already made a significant impact on Barcelona in a short period of time. The Uruguayan’s suspension may actually have helped him to adapt to his new club’s approach, as he had an atypically large number of training sessions under his belt before debuting.

That explains the striker’s sharp understanding with Messi, as well as his ability to lead Barcelona’s pressing in an ordered rather than chaotic fashion. Opponents who previously thought they had figured Barça out now have a new puzzle to crack in the middle of the season. Enrique will hope to exploit that to maximum effect with key fixtures ahead.

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