There’s something strangely ordinary about Barcelona at the moment.
The club is winless in its last four La Liga matches following the stalemate at Valencia prior to the international respite, and could face more problems on the horizon with upcoming fixtures against first-place Sevilla, Inter, and familiar foe Real Madrid.
Gerard Pique has fallen off the side of a cliff and midfielders Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets have both lost a step. However, Ernesto Valverde’s greatest concern has to be the decline of Luis Suarez.
Suarez’s perpetual inclusion in Valverde’s starting XI is synonymous with an ever-growing rotation issue at Barcelona. Through eight league matches, nine players have appeared in every fixture, including first-choice shot-stopper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, as Valverde appears set to ride his starting lineup into the ground.
Suarez is on the downturn, and rather than a gradual drift towards the denouement of a celebrated career, the Uruguayan is hitting the wall with the pace of a crash test dummy in a wheelbarrow. It’s all happening so quickly.
Since Suarez made the move to Barcelona in 2014 from Liverpool, the 31-year-old has been a model of consistency with 155 goals in 207 matches in all competitions for the club. This season, Suarez has scored on just three occasions. When compared to the strike rate from his previous four years at the Camp Nou, the drop-off is startling.
Suarez was especially awful in Barca’s hapless defeat at Leganes. Valverde took him off moments after the hour mark while down one, a deserved dismissal after the forward managed just eight passes and nary an effort on goal during that spell.
As shocking as the metrics for this season are, to equate Suarez’s successes solely to goals scored is irresponsible. In the frenetic Champions League victory over Tottenham at Wembley, the forward displayed a deft understanding off the ball, twice feinting a dummy in the area where the ball found an in-stride Lionel Messi. Spoiler alert: both plays resulted in goals.
Suarez doesn’t merit being put out to pasture quite yet, especially considering he’s scored in all five finals he’s appeared in with the club. However, with 659 minutes played in the league this season, the former Ajax star would profit from a break.
Slow starts aren’t exactly alien to Suarez. Look no further than last season, where he managed to register just three goals through 14 matches before catching fire and finding form ahead of the holiday period.
He can still contribute, but for how long?
Looming above all of Suarez’s struggles is Valverde’s failure to efficiently alter his starting XI. Rotating the first-choice No. 9 out of the squad on occasion could also see Messi line up as a centre-forward and allow €41-million summer signing Malcom to actually start a match. Or, if the Spanish tactician prefers, Ousmane Dembele could line up on the right, opposite Philippe Coutinho with Messi in the middle. With all due respect to Munir El Haddadi, he’s not the answer.
Again, Barcelona appear poorly prepared for the season. Jordi Alba has no backup at left-back, the attempt to play Thomas Vermaelen there against Leganes was a disaster, and Juan Miranda is admittedly not ready. It’s not clear why Malcom and Arturo Vidal were signed, and above all, a replacement for Suarez wasn’t acquired. A move for Antoine Griezmann failed, and now the Catalan colossus is being linked with Roberto Firmino.
Suarez’s struggles are symptomatic of Barca’s larger issues, but his deteriorating skills are currently the biggest concern at the Camp Nou.
For a striker who relies heavily on physical dominance and an ability to outmuscle defenders and force his way into spaces, Suarez’s end is near. That’s not to say that he can’t still do a job this year, though it’s time Barcelona show some foresight and find the Uruguayan’s successor.