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Luis Suarez suffering the most from Neymar’s Barca exit

When Luis Suarez handed Lionel Messi his Golden Boot award last week in Barcelona he was asked if his team-mate was a good neighbour – the pair live in the same seaside town just outside of the city. He joked about benefiting from the security around Messi’s house. 

On Sunday night, as he toiled without much individual reward, there was more evidence that there is another neighbour he is missing this season – few players at Barcelona have suffered more since Neymar’s departure than Suarez.

In the Valencia game he set up the goal that never was for Messi but struggled to stay onside against the home team’s well-drilled defence and once more looked a shadow of the forward who has terrorised La Liga defences since joining from Liverpool. 

Luis Suarez is facing one of the biggest tests of his career as he struggles to score at Barcelona

Former Arsenal centre back Gabriel marshalled him well and Barcelona needed a sublime Messi assist and good run and finish from left back Jordi Alba to salvage a point from the game.

Over the previous three seasons Suarez was the meat in the Neymar-Messi sandwich. His job was to bully centre backs and finish moves, while the other two dazzled either side of him. Now Neymar is gone and it’s no longer a front three. He was upfront alongside Messi on Sunday but with Barcelona’s best player wandering deep to look for the ball he was often on his own.

The early balls that Luis Enrique wanted his team to play were food and drink to Suarez but that direct style has disappeared. Barcelona had 75 per cent of possession in the first half against Valencia on Sunday. They defended deep and Barcelona tried to pass their way around them. Suarez often looked as uncomfortable as Diego Costa looks for Spain when he plays centre forward for a team that look like they could cope without having one.

The Uruguay striker has just five goals in 17 games in all competitions so far this season

The Uruguay striker has just five goals in 17 games in all competitions so far this season

He was forced to work hard in wide areas again in the draw with Valencia on Sunday

He was forced to work hard in wide areas again in the draw with Valencia on Sunday

Neymar used to cover the left-hand side of the Barcelona forward line and Messi’s starting position would often be the right wing. Now Suarez has to drop wide to run those channels, he is further from goal when he receives the ball and he is far less effective as a consequence. 

SUAREZ’S STRUGGLES THIS SEASON 
La Liga All Comps
Appearances 10 17
Starts 10 17
Minutes played 892 1521
Goals scored 5 5
Minutes per goal 178.4 304.2
Shots on target 16 25
Total shots (inc. blocks) 37 64
Shooting accuracy % 61.5 53.2
Shot conversion rate (inc. blocks) % 13.5 7.8
Assists 1 2
Chances created (inc assists) 8 18
Goal involvements 6 7
Mins per goal involvement 148.7 217.3

The old Barcelona domination of midfield is back but that has come, in part, because the midfield is now flooded with personnel. It was 4-4-2 against Valencia with Paulinho, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic frequently joined by a withdrawn Messi. Suarez was the furthest forward – pace has never been his greatest virtue and as he did his best to get a split second ahead of the last defender he more often than not strayed offside.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde is not concerned by Suarez’s lack of goals. In the new Barca he has built a goal from a full back appearing with a run from a deep from nowhere is just as likely as one from the centre forward. Suarez’s job description has changed. The team no longer plays to the tune of its front three – midfield is king and he needs to facilitate those midfielders.

Things may change when Ousmane Dembele returns from injury in the new year. That will see a return to a 4-3-3 and Dembele’s pace will force opposing defenders back on their heels and create a little more space for Suarez. He may find himself needing to cover less ground and can go back to concentrate on sniffing out goals in and around the six-yard box.

Until then we are not going to see the Suarez of old. Barcelona sit atop of La Liga eight points clear of Real Madrid and four ahead of second-place Valencia, so the complaints against him are quiet grumblings more than calls for him to be replaced. Barcelona’s striking resources don’t offer much of an alternative anyway. Paco Alcacer was the forward on the bench on Sunday night and he never made on to the pitch.

Suarez's close relationship with Lionel Messi remains intact, but they are now a front two

Suarez’s close relationship with Lionel Messi remains intact, but they are now a front two

Barca's famed MSN attacking trident has been ripped apart by the loss of Neymar to PSG

Barca’s famed MSN attacking trident has been ripped apart by the loss of Neymar to PSG

But the focus on Suarez will intensify if Dembele’s return does not increase his goal count. He starred at Liverpool alongside Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling and at Barcelona he formed one of the best forward lines in history with Neymar and Messi. Three has never been a crowd for Suarez.

Messi mentioned him in his Golden Boot acceptance speech as one of those who will continue to contest the big personal awards over the coming seasons. But on five goals in 17 games he will not be troubling the judges unless there is a major turnaround this season. 

He has been left exposed by Neymar’s move to Paris. It’s one of the biggest challenge of his career to adjust to that and remain a part of Barcelona’s future. 

 

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