Dead-eyed South Americans Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero bring goals apenty to Liverpool and Man City, but as Michael Cox explains, they can give their managers tactical headaches...
English football fans often regard the Spanish goalscoring charts with a mixture of astonishment and exasperation, as Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo spend half a decade averaging more than a goal per game. Since signing for Real Madrid in 2009, Ronaldo has scored 246 in 240 games since, while Messi has scored 271 in 256 over the same period.
Clearly, the Premier League can’t yet compete with world football's undisputed top two. But the English top flight boasts two superb strikers who are both averaging over a goal a game this season – and they meet at Anfield on Sunday. Luis Suarez has scored 29 in 28 league games this season, while Sergio Aguero's six Champions League goals takes him to 26 in 25 across all competitions.
The duo's goalscoring abilities aren't in doubt, but their precise tactical roles have been more questionable since their arrival in English football. Although both are outstanding talents, their managers have sometimes found it difficult to accommodate them while retaining overall balance.
Suarez's goal drought
They have slightly different issues. Suarez’s initial problem in English football, strange as it might seem now, was his lack of goals. After signing in January 2011 he was immediately impressive, but managed just 12 goals in his first 41 appearances for the Reds.
A highly energetic player, Suarez is at his best when fielded centrally and allowed to work the entire width of the pitch, prowling the channels to receive though-balls, and forcing the opposition into mistakes. But Liverpool were initially unsure about playing the Uruguayan up front, partly because of his initial profligacy and partly because they had another expensive signing to field: Suarez often found himself deployed just off Andy Carroll.
Carroll wasn't to find success at Anfield, but Suarez did – and his goalscoring record exploded after he’d experienced the equivalent of a full season in the Premier League. When played as the central striker, Suarez has been prolific – ever since his superb hat-trick at Norwich late in 2011/12.
His goalscoring has actually dipped in recent weeks, because Brendan Rodgers has also attempted to accommodate Daniel Sturridge up front. When the SAS play up front together in a 4-4-2 diamond or a 3-5-2, for example, both are in their favoured centre-forward role. However, Rodgers has often decided to play a 4-3-3 instead, which has generally meant Suarez starting from the right flank – where he’s less of a pure goalscoring threat.
Aguero's partner problem
At one point, many thought it was silly to field Suarez as the primary striker, when there’s clearly so much more to his game than scoring goals. Many feel similarly about Aguero, a peculiar player who is neither an out-and-out striker, nor a proper Argentine No.10.
As Aguero told FourFourTwo earlier this season, he prefers playing just off a main striker. “For most of my career I've played behind a striker, but close enough to form a partnership with them. That's where I think I play best,” he says.
However, this means City are almost obliged to play a 4-4-2 system, with Aguero up front alongside Edin Dzeko or Alvaro Negredo. The 4-4-2 can work in some situations, and the infield drifts of David Silva and Samir Nasri mean City don’t lose the midfield numbers game, but it means space can open up elsewhere on the pitch, and ask a great deal of City’s centre-backs and central midfielders.
Besides, Aguero doesn’t actually drop deep and become involved in build-up play particularly often. He plays 22 passes per game, which is fewer than the likes of Wilfried Bony or Marouane Chamakh, and he doesn’t create that many goals – seven assists since the start of last season, in 47 games. He remains, however, extremely prolific. The 4-1 derby victory over Manchester United summed it up – inconsistent link play, but superb poaching.
It’s slightly strange, then, that City have so rarely fielded Aguero as their primary striker. There’s an obvious reason he likes playing with a more static partner – Dzeko or Negredo move towards the ball and attract defenders up the pitch, while Aguero darts in behind. But if Aguero played permanently on the shoulder of the last defender, allowing City to use an extra playmaker, they could be even more dangerous.
Some suggest Aguero is too complete to be used as a central striker and nothing more, but that’s true of many of the world’s greatest centre-forwards – like Messi, Robin van Persie and now Suarez. Both could play in deeper roles, certainly, but even strikers are all-rounders these days.