For years, the question of who and how the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo duopoly on European football’s most prestigious individual awards would be broken was asked. Last week, Luka Modric provided an answer, winning FIFA’s ‘The Best’ prize for 2018. But the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly had been broken some time before that.
Two years ago, Luis Suarez won the ‘Pichichi,’ the award given to the top scorer in La Liga. In doing so, the Uruguayan became the first player to split Messi and Ronaldo in the goalscoring standings for the past seven years (now, he is the only player to have split them in the past nine years). Suarez can legitimately claim to have come as close to their superhuman standard as anyone else.
A lot has changed in the time since, though. Season on season, Suarez has declined as a goalscoring force, with the Uruguayan struggling badly to get going this season. It was a similar story last season as the former Liverpool forward scored just three times in his first 14 games. He looked out of shape, well off the pace and flustered in front of goal.
Suarez ultimately recovered his form in the run up to Christmas, but by then questions had already been raised over his longevity. Now, he is suffering many of the same problems, scoring just three times for Barcelona in eight appearances this season. At 31 years old, though, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Uruguayan is on the decline.
So reliant is Suarez on his physicality, his ability to turn quickly, wriggle through tackles, burst in behind opposition defences, that it was always going to be likely that he was suffer a drop off as he moved into the twilight of his career. The problem is that Barcelona don’t appear to have prepared for this.
The Catalans have spent the past three transfer windows concerned with replacing Neymar who left a gaping, wide hole on the left side of Ernesto Valverde’s team. They’ve splurged £135 million on Ousmane Dembele and £36.5 million on Malcom, with Philippe Coutinho also added for £146 million. Valverde even used Gerard Deulofeu for a time as a Neymar successor. Still, Barca are reeling from the shock departure of the Brazilian over a year ago.
So consumed were Barcelona by this issue that the failed to plan properly for the exit of Andres Iniesta at the close of last season. It’s only through good fortune that Coutinho has seemingly slipped into the role. They don’t have a succession plan for Lionel Messi, either, although the challenge of replacing arguably the best player to have ever played the game will be understandably tough, if not impossible.
In amongst all this, the decline of Suarez has been somewhat ignored. Antoine Griezmann, who was close to moving to the Camp Nou in the summer, would have gone some way to solving this problem, but that deal fell through and there was no secondary target. This suggested that Barcelona were only ever interested in the clout of Griezmann’s name rather than what he would be as a pawn in their tactical game plan.
Transfer strategy has long been a problem at the Camp Nou. It was one of the things that convinced Neymar that his future lay elsewhere. Messi has also reportedly raised similar concerns when discussing new contracts with the club. It has had a damaging effect on Barcelona’s defence, their midfield and with Suarez’s powers on the wave they mustn’t ignore the impact it is also having on their attack.
Since joining from Liverpool four years ago, Suarez has more than proved himself as a Barcelona player. Whatever happens from this point on, he will go down as a revered figure of one of their greatest ever teams, a foil for their greatest ever player. But great teams outlast great players and that is what’s happening with Suarez.
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