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Luis Súarez: the ‘clumsy’ enigma who always delivers for Barcelona

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Luis Suárez succeeded where everyone else failed. There were five minutes remaining against Atlético Madrid on Saturday night and it was still 0-0 when he received the ball, shifted his weight and bent it in a wide, fast arc beyond the goalkeeper in off the far post. It was the 31st shot Jan Oblak had faced from outside the area this season and the first to beat him; on a night in which the Slovenian had seemed unbeatable, it was also the goal that effectively secured the league for Barcelona, Suárez’s fourth in five years at the Camp Nou.

Off he went, waving his shirt, disappearing under a pile of bodies which eventually dispersed, leaving him lying there taking it all in, body spread in a star shape, shirt in his hand. “It’s one of the most important goals I’ve scored for Barcelona,” he said.

There are a lot to choose from: 175 in 240 games makes him the club’s fifth all-time top scorer. Three days earlier, he had scored with the last kick to clinch a 4-4 draw at Villarreal. He also scored the last-minute winner at Rayo Vallecano, got three against Real Madrid in October, and took Barcelona to the final of the Copa del Rey, scoring two and forcing an own goal in the semi-final at the Santiago Bernabéu. There was something familiar about that: last season, he scored in both clásicos, got a late equaliser away at Atlético, and scored twice in the cup final.

The list goes on. In 2016-17, he also scored against Madrid and got the goals that took Barcelona to the cup final. In 2015-16, his hat-trick clinched the title, taking him to 40 league goals, including two in a clásico. And in 2014-15, the turning point came when he moved centrally against Atlético, scoring in a 3-1 win that kickstarted a season which culminated in the treble, Suárez scoring the clásico goal that effectively clinched the league and the winner in the European Cup final against Juventus. On the way, he scored two in Paris and two in Manchester against City.

Yet Europe has resisted since then. Suárez has outscored everyone but Messi – his league record is better even than Ronaldo since 2015 – and Barcelona have dominated domestically. But they arrive in Manchester seeking to progress beyond the quarter-finals after falling at this hurdle for three consecutive seasons, and the Uruguayan hasn’t scored a Champions League goal this season. He hasn’t scored away in the competition since September 2015, his tournament season totals reading: 7, 8, 3, 1, 0.

Luis Suarez barges his way through past his teammate Lionel Messi and in on goal.

Luis Suarez barges his way through past his teammate Lionel Messi and in on goal. Photograph: Manu Fernández/AP

“Someone always asks about Luis,” Ernesto Valverde says whenever anyone asks about Luis. The Barcelona manager calls him “priceless” but the debate has occasionally been intense, the doubts too. Nor has it always been about the numbers, although they bring it all together. Capable of being both brilliant and bad in the same game, at times it borders on the baffling, seemingly as likely to score an outrageous goal as miss an easy chance. At half-time in the clásico in October, he walked off shaking his head, having missed the opportunity to end it; at full time, he walked off with the match ball, scorer of a superb hat-trick.

“He’s so insistent: you have to look for success and he’s an expert in looking,” Valverde says. This weekend, he finally scored the decisive late goal with his fifth shot, just as he had scored with his fifth shot against Villarreal three days earlier when it didn’t appear to be his night. Valverde was asked after if there was something about Suárez that meant that even if things aren’t going his way, a coach thinks: there’s no way I’m taking this guy off. “Exactly,” he replied, “but I do think he looked good.”

Barcelona’s manager talks about the injustice of judging solely through goals and mostly Suárez scores plenty but when he doesn’t, there’s more. No striker has suited Messi so well, on or off the pitch. “He runs the defence down, battles with everyone; he does an incredible job; it’s what he transmits to us and what he transmits to the opposition,” Valverde says, yet even that does him an injustice. There’s something in his style, movement, and body shape that exaggerates bad moments and mistakes, blinding people to his quality. The focus on temperament eclipses talent: the vision, touch, passing and intelligence, gifts hidden in a poorly wrapped package. If some players look elegant but ultimately offer nothing, Suárez is the opposite.

“He’s a ‘lie’,” the former Atlético Madrid striker Kiko said this weekend. “He’s got his head down, his arms are all over the place, you don’t know if he’s got the ball under control and suddenly … He’s false: people look at him and say: ‘No, he’s fat, he doesn’t turn sharply, he’s got no quality, and then he produces a pass that surprises lots of people. He has much more quality than people imagine. ‘He’s clumsy, nothing comes easily to him.’ Yeah, maybe he’s not that aesthetically pleasing but watch. Kids being coached to keep their head up might say: ‘Look at Suárez, Dad’. You say: ‘Wait until the end of the move.’ And then it’s: ‘Blimey, how did he see Leo there?’”

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Suárez looks fit and fast now, improved on the opening months of the season. He has seven goals in nine games, 23 overall, but it is not just about that. Against Atlético Suárez laid off a stunning, first-time reverse pass to Philippe Coutinho. At Villarreal, the second was born with his ball, opening out the pitch. At Real Betis, Messi scored that hat-trick, but the best goal was probably Suárez’s and so, more to the point, was the best assist – a ludicrous backheel through a gap that wasn’t there. And against Lyon in Barcelona’s last Champions League match, he provided another sumptuous pass for Coutinho. “Strikers live off goals but I’m just happy to get through,” Suárez said.

“His level is extremely high, he played brilliantly, gifted one to Coutinho and didn’t take the penalty he won. He doesn’t need to score. But people will talk about the goals he didn’t score again,” Valverde insisted that night. They will until Suárez finally finds the net again. It’s been three-and-a-half years since his last away European goal but Old Trafford awaits. “They will come,” he says, and only a fool would give up on him. His manager certainly is not about to for as long as he is out there, anything can happen.

“He’s a constant headache for opponents and you never know when he’ll appear,” Valverde said on Saturday, after another goal all but secured another title. “Luis always ends up being decisive.”

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