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It’s hard to imagine the top striker in the world could be considered only the third best player on his club team, but such is the situation for Barcelona striker Luis Suárez. However, this is less an indication of Suárez’s talent, but rather the talents of those who flank him on either side. The Uruguayan striker may play third-fiddle to teammates Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr., but his understanding of attacking movement and positioning is second to none. This incredible intelligence may seem slightly counterintuitive seeing as he bit opposing players on three separate occasions,1 but do not confuse these lapses in judgement with a lack of intellect.
Despite his fiery temperament and questionable character, Suárez is the perfect on-field teammate. He scores goals seemingly-at will, distributes with the vision of a midfielder, and opens up ample space for teammates to exploit with his intelligent movements. Let’s take a look at what makes him so special.
First and foremost, the job of a striker is to score goals. As long as a striker is finding the back of the net at a respectable rate, neither managers nor supporters will fault him for possessing the work rate of Dimitar Berbatov or the distribution skills of Per Mertesacker. Scoring has never been an issue for the Uruguayan. As the below chart indicates, Suárez is a remarkably consistent goal scorer, tallying more than 20 goals in three of his last four seasons.
“El Pistolero” is tricky. Rather than beating a defender with pace or strength, Suárez uses his guile and attacking acumen to create goal-scoring opportunities for himself and his Barcelona teammates. He views breaking down a defense as a chess match, laying traps for opposing defenders by staying five moves ahead of his opposition.
The perceptive striker proves his intelligence in the clip above as he assesses the defensive setup and creates space for himself with a sharp forward movement to draw the defender towards goal. Suárez returns to the vacated space, executes a nifty left-footed touch to the outside, the opposite of what the Deportivo defense and goalkeeper would have expected, and slots it coolly past the keeper.
Luis Suárez is a master of using unmarked space. Whether it is a channel between two defenders or a sliver of pitch left by a defender playing slightly too deep, he will locate it and exploit it.
Here Suárez recognizes that Sergio Ramos is playing slightly behind his fellow central defender, allowing Suárez slightly more room to pick up speed towards goal without straying offsides. He manages to stay just onsides and finds himself free on goal after the one-two pass is played. While the finish may look relatively pedestrian, pay close attention to Suárez’s neat footwork:
The combination of hesitations and quick steps forces the goalie to go to ground. Once the goalie has been rendered helpless, Suárez executes a simple chip into the side netting.
As illustrated in the video, the children’s book villain2 possesses a keen understanding of exactly how a defense or goalie will react to his movements, and repeatedly uses this to his advantage. This rings doubly true for his attacking. The run that Suárez has mastered is the diagonal blitzkrieg into the opposing penalty box.
Diagonal attacking runs are especially effective because they allow an attacker to more easily stay onside until a ball is played, while forcing a defender to make an important decision. If the defender decides to vacate his position and mark the cutting attacker, a hole will be left in the defense. If the defender decides not to follow the attacker, the attacker will be in space to receive a pass.
Suárez runs diagonally between the two Celtic central defenders. The man marking Suárez allows him to run free, presumably assuming that his center back partner will follow the run. When he does not budge, the Uruguayan’s original marker tries to catch up to the play but it is too late; the confusion caused by the run allows Suárez to receive a pass through on goal, and Suárez did what he does best: bulge the back netting.
Not only does the Barcelona forward understand how his own movements will affect a defense, he also possesses a keen grasp on how his teammates’ movements will create exploitable space in an otherwise tightly-packed defense.
By possessing a supreme understanding of movement and the reactions a movement causes, Suárez is able to manufacture a goal out of essentially nothing by directing traffic and pointing the defense’s attention away from him. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a teammate like Lionel Messi capable of rewarding your genius with an imaginative, on-the-money bicycle assist.
Every example in this article has led to the following conclusion: Suárez never stops moving, proving as much a nuisance to opposing teams as any player in the sport.3 Whether he is picking apart a defense, or chasing the ball in midfield,4 or nutmegging David Luiz into oblivion, his constant movement strains and stretches the opposition, wearing them down and never allowing them to get comfortable. Discomfort and fatigue cause defensive lapses, and lead to consistent goalscoring opportunities over the course of a 90-minute match. And when a player possesses this level of composure and ball control, it’s not difficult to see how these opportunities were converted into the 61 goals Luis Suárez tallied for Barcelona in all competitions last season.
Do yourself a favor and tune into the next Barcelona match. But rather than watching for the magnificence of Messi or the flair of Neymar, watch closely the movement of Luis Suárez. Chances are, he’ll move mountains to help his team, no matter if they’re cruising to a 6-0 victory or struggling to survive against Manchester City at the Etihad.