Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Prodigal Son or Pantomime Villain? Luis Suarez is back.

On Wednesday night, the return few thought they would witness will finally happen. Luis Suarez is once again available for selection and returns to the Liverpool squad for the first time in  five months for the League Cup tie against their biggest rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Interestingly, Suarez return may not even be the big story on Wednesday night. United are coming off the back of a 4-1 hiding courtesy of neighbours Manchester City contributing to the club's worst start to a league season in a decade and the spotlight is more likely to be on the now under-pressure David Moyes (who Suarez has a history with) than the Uruguayan striker himself, especially if United lose. Suarez is at Liverpool till January at least, probably until the end of the season so this article will look at the possible impact his return will have on the Liverpool side.

Hey Moyes.. remember me?

Luis Suarez was given a ten match ban on April 24th for biting Branislav Ivanovic during Liverpool's 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Anfield. This in addition to his eight match ban in 2011/12 for racially abusing Patrice Evra has made him on of the most controversial and polarising figures in the history of the Premier League. His rap sheet doesn't stop there though. In 2010 he was given a seven game ban by the Dutch FA whilst playing for Ajax for biting the arm of PSV's Ottman Bakkal. He was also given a one match ban by the FA for giving the middle finger to Fulham fans at Craven Cottage last season. Not exactly the best disciplinary record. He famously blocked a shot with his hand for Uruguay against Ghana in the final minutes of the World Cup Quarter final in 2010, receiving a red card and  endeared himself to no one by celebrating wildly when the ensuing penalty was missed. Ghana went out. He was also involved in several diving incidents over the past number of years and performed a mock dive in front of then Everton manager David Moyes, a critic of his, after scoring in the derby last season.

Suarez fancies a piece of Ivanovic, who to his credit did not over-react.

Have Liverpool missed their talismanic striker? Not really it must be said. Liverpool have managed to win seven games of the ten he's been missing for, drawing two and losing only the home fixture against Southampton last weekend. This is down in no small part to the eleven goals contributed by Daniel Sturridge in this period. In the ten games prior to Suarez getting himself banned, Liverpool managed only four victories. Along with three defeats.

There's never been any doubt as to Suarez footballing abilities. He is a truly outstanding player. Quick, sharp, agile, an excellent dribbler, wonderful technique and an eye for goal to rival anyone in the world. He looked a bargain when he arrived from Ajax for £23m in January 2011. Particularly when you consider Andy Carroll joined for £35m just a week later and Torres was sold to Chelsea for £50m that same night. He finished his debut campaign in England with just four goals in thirteen games, famously creating two for Dirk Kuyt in a 3-1 win over Man United ensuring instant endearment among the Liverpool faithful.

Not exactly the best of friends

The racism row erupted in October 2011 when Suarez used a racial insult towards Manchester United's Patrice Evra during a league game between the sides at Anfield. The culture in England is unique in that you could probably punch an opponent in the face and it will most likely be forgotten about in time but racism, biting, spitting and the likes are considered cowardly acts and not tolerated whatsoever. Suarez was found guilty and ordered to sit out eight games. His refusal to shake Patrice Evra's hand at their next meeting was foolish and ensured a sorry chapter for Liverpool that could have been put to bed there and then dragged on for another while. The whole incident further damaged his already tainted reputation and dragged the name of his club and his manager Kenny Daglish, who had stood firmly by him to this point, through the dirt needlessly.

On the pitch, he kept delivering. He scored thirty times in 2012/13 enjoying his best season in a Liverpool shirt, finishing runner-up in the race for the golden boot and being nominated for PFA Player of the Year with stats matched only by Gareth Bale and Robin van Persie. Then came the biting incident which brought his season to a pre-mature end and denied him of the chance to challenge van Persie in the goalscoring charts over the final games.

First to 20: Had he not bitten Ivanovic, Suarez may have won the golden boot last year

This summer, Suarez embroiled himself in yet more controversy when he claimed during an interview with Sid Lowe that Brendan Rodgers should let him leave because he promised too a year ago if Liverpool did not qualify for the Champions League. Blaming the English media (who's help he was now asking for), Suarez portrayed himself as the victim in all this and even enlisted the help of the PFA in order to try force a move from Liverpool with Arsenal seemingly the only interested party after Madrid decided to pursue Bale in earnest. The Gunners were unwilling to meet Liverpool's valuation of the player and the deal died, leaving Suarez with no option other than to remain a Liverpool player for at least another season.

So now that he's back and able to play again, where does he fit in? Rodgers can't really drop Danny Sturridge. When you have the most in-form striker in the Premier League you just can't cast him aside. Not for anyone. So playing Suarez as the lone striker as he was often used last season is not really an option for them. He could be used as a no.10 playing behind Sturridge. David Moyes and Manuel Pellegrini have shown this season how it is possible to include two world-class strikers in the same team in the era of the lone striker.

Suarez as a no.10 playing in the middle off Sturridge

This option does have one minor drawback in that it leaves no room for the talented Phillipe Coutinho who's been outstanding since he moved to Merseyside in January. He's injured right now so Suarez may play here on Wednesday but don't expect it to be the long-term option. While Jordan Henderson has been impressive on the right side so far this season he is a more dispensable option for Rodgers than Coutinho. With that in mind, I expect Suarez to take up a regular berth on the right hand side of the attack.

Suarez on the right, the more likely option

This option makes more sense to me. Coutinho should be playing in between the midfield and strikers where he is most effective. Suarez has played on the wing before, for Ajax and in his early days at Liverpool. Don't expect him to do half as defensive work as  Henderson. While he's not a dead-weight defensively and does do a share, he is a much more attack minded option than the Englishman. Alternatively he could appear on the left flank with Moses moved to the right. I can't see Moses being the one to make way. Rodgers had previously expressed his desire for a winger in his side and Moses fits the bill. Much more so than Henderson.

Liverpool's long term hopes rest with this dynamic duo

Following his appearance at Old Trafford, where he can expect the usual torrent of abuse given the whole Evra story, Suarez and Liverpool's next assignment is away to Sunderland on Sunday before he makes his return to Anfield to face Crystal Palace on October 5th. I am interested to see how the crowd react to him at his home ground. They stood by him so firmly even when he was showering the club with bad press during the Evra scandal among other incidents, but I feel his actions since his season ended last April may have pushed the fans towards breaking point if not beyond it.

The Anfield crowd are a fiercely loyal bunch. I don't think he'll be booed, they don't tend to subject their own players to that,  but I feel the love for him that was so strong and powerful during the last few years may just have lessened somewhat and they may be growing tired of all the negative press he brings upon their club. A club he no longer wants to play for.

Suarez and the Kop in happier times

There comes a point where having a player like Suarez in the dressing room becomes more trouble than it's worth and I think Liverpool reached that point with Suarez this summer. By keeping him, Rodgers has run the risk of creating a very negative environment in a dressing room which at the moment seems quite harmonious. Suarez can be disruptive, he's not a good team player, he's selfish (watch his reaction next time someone doesn't pass him the ball) and he's obviously not that popular among his team-mates, emphasised by the fact that no one ran to celebrate with him when he equalised against Chelsea last season. Him spending the summer trying to leave the club will only have further isolated him among the dressing room. Cashing in on him during the summer might have been the best option but unfortunately for Rodgers, no one was willing to meet Liverpool's £55m valuation.

With Suarez you will always have controversy. Upon his return in 2012, within three days he had kicked Scott Parker and snubbed Evra's handshake at Old Trafford. This negative publicity may have affected performances at Anfield as Liverpool lost six of their next seven league games, plummeting down the table. The Kop will hope history does not repeat itself as Suarez gets ready to suit up again on Wednesday night.

The Deep-Lying Playmaker


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