The Tactical Evolution of Liverpool Forward Luis Suarez

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistJune 17, 2013

How do you fit Luis Suarez into a 4-3-3? How do you build a team around a man who has no fixed position, or who operates best when left to his own devices?

That has been the task facing Brendan Rodgers this summer, or at least it has been until the Uruguayan forward had started speaking to the press with such regularity about apparently wishing for a move to Real Madrid.

Suarez was Liverpool's best overall performer last season, was the top scorer in the Premier League until his untimely suspension and was generally viewed as one of the very best attackers in all of European football—yet somehow he continues to evade tactical label having changed his role in the Liverpool team a number of times since arrival two-and-a-half years ago.

As things stand, Suarez will remain part of Liverpool's first team squad and the man who bears the sacred No. 7 shirt will have a big part to play in Brendan Rodgers' team next season...but in what role?


Suarez Upon Arrival

There can be little doubt that Suarez arrived at Liverpool in the winter of 2011 with the remit of playing as a second striker, a support act to the club's main goalscorer and bearer of the No. 9 shirt, Fernando Torres.

As fate would have it though, the duo never spent a day in training together; Torres handed in a transfer request and exited Anfield on deadline day in January, headed to Chelsea for £50 million, just hours after Suarez joined from Ajax in a deal worth slightly less than half that amount.

In he came, along with sudden arrival Andy Carroll, and Kenny Dalglish was given the task of trying to help them work together from time to time, though with Carroll's injuries and Suarez's ineligibility in Europe, it was an infrequent work in progress.

Suarez played up front, but usually with support in the form of Carroll or Dirk Kuyt. At times he was used as the lone forward, especially with Kuyt or Maxi Rodriguez pushed high up the pitch from the flanks, but by and large he played on the shoulder of the defenders, a real centre forward.

He ended the season with four goals from his 13 Premier League appearances for the Reds, with his opener coming just a quarter of an hour after his debut entrance as substitute against Stoke City.


2011-12: Under Kenny Dalglish

In his first full campaign at Anfield, much was expected of Suarez. Already in several matches the season before he had shown an incredible ability to beat players and get a shot away, as well as creating chances for his team mates.

Suarez was Liverpool's first choice striker in Dalglish's only full campaign in charge and led the line well, but showed much more of his propensity to dart into the channels and come deep to link up play too. The Reds were struggling in midfield at times with the pairing of Lucas and Charlie Adam, and later Jay Spearing and Adam, not able to dominate and control games enough.

New arrivals Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson were not settling in quickly and providing ammunition for the forwards, which left Suarez doing an awful lot of both parts of the job—trying to create, and trying to score.

Carroll was intermittently in the team but failing to hit the back of the net, meaning Suarez had the burden of responsibility on his shoulders in a big way.

When the two played together, it was Suarez with his pace and aggression who played as the striker, with Carroll supporting from deeper roles and attacking centrally on diagonal runs from the channels—or at least, that looked to be the idea. It didn't often go quite to plan.

In terms of all-round performance he was a huge positive for Liverpool—but his shot conversion rate was poor, netting just 11 league goals all season from 108 shots, just a 10 percent success rate.

It was hard work for the Uruguayan, the leading performer in a sub-standard side, but his tactical role perhaps didn't bring out the best in him either. Suarez lacked support, had to do far too much himself on the ball and often was seemingly instructed to maintain too high a position, leaving a big gap between the attack and midfield.


Early 2012-13: Brendan Rodgers and a New System

The season just finished saw Suarez operating under a new manager in Brendan Rodgers. The incoming boss knew that he had to add more goals to the side, especially with Carroll not in his plans, and in came Fabio Borini to that end.

Rodgers was restricted somewhat in the business he was able to do, and the Reds started the season with only Borini and Sturridge as real centre-forwards after the closure of the transfer window. The Italian's injury early on the season then meant Suarez was the only striker available to Rodgers, and as such it meant he would be playing a No. 9 role for the foreseeable future.

Of course, Suarez being Suarez, he played a far more adaptable and versatile role in the team than a pure striker, and here was the first difference between Rodgers and Dalglish; Suarez was encouraged to roam freely and make the most of his tactical imbalance, in the hopes that other runners from deep and from wide would fill in the spaces he left.

Initially this worked well with Raheem Sterling having such a blistering start to his top-flight career and other encouraging link-ups being shown with Nuri Sahin, Jonjo Shelvey or, later in the first half of the season, Jose Enrique who had been pushed forward.

Suarez was completely off the leash; he played across the entire front line, creating havoc and opportunities on goal wherever he roamed, but he also dropped deep into midfield and ran off the shoulder of the defence. It was incredibly hard for the opposition to stop him or track him, and it showed in Liverpool's attacking play.

He scored 13 league goals up until the end of December, prior to the transfer window, and the Reds owed him a huge debt of gratitude for still being in the hunt for a top-six place at the end of the calendar year. His consistency and quality made up for the lack of options at the team's disposal, but also took some of the pressure off others who were still underperforming.

Suarez played as a No. 9 and a No. 10 all rolled into one, and excelled doing it.

This was perhaps his favoured role, but the team lacked something extra when he was drifting out and around the edges of the penalty box rather than getting into the area to finish off even more chances.


Late 2012-13 and Further Switches in Roles

Into January then and the immediate arrival of Daniel Sturridge meant Suarez had new support up front, and also that Suarez's role would immediately change.

Rodgers rarely ventured into the murky underworld of a straight 4-4-2, but there was no doubting a significant shift in the shape of the front four could be seen. Suarez played, more often than not, a few yards off Sturridge the central striker, operating as a second forward and trying to get hold of the ball ahead of the opposition defence, but behind their midfield.

Suarez and Sturridge linked up extremely well in these early stages, but the tactical move came at another cost; Liverpool lacked an extra body in the centre of midfield and it showed too often, being overrun by teams with runners from deep or anything approaching good movement or power in central midfield.

In attack it looked good, going the other way, not so much.

Later in the month came another new arrival who would have another impact on Suarez's position: Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho.

The No. 10 immediately had a good impact on the team, scoring and creating goals for fun it seemed. The runs off the ball from Suarez and Sturridge were perfect for Coutinho to exploit when cutting in from the left with the ball at his feet, and soon Rodgers was tempted to redress the balance in the centre of the park by putting Coutinho there, and Suarez out to the left.

As an inside forward, Suarez has everything to be a match-winner, cutting in with his phenomenal dribbling ability and acceleration, and looking to curl shots in toward the far corner.

Given time, this could have been a winning formula for the Reds, but Sturridge picked up a couple of injuries and Suarez was back up front.

There were downsides to that latest tactical switch too; Suarez was asked to track back far more than he would have preferred, almost as a left-sided midfielder at times, because Liverpool had by then dropped their own defensive line far deeper than earlier on in the season as a result of the personnel shuffle at the back.

It left Suarez too far from goal, and unable to always have the desired impact in the final third.

A couple more games with Sturridge alongside him in the centre yielded more goals, one of which was a last-minute equaliser against Chelsea.

That was his last appearance of the season, as he served the first four matches of a 10-game ban which will carry over into next season.


Next Year as a Red?

As per SkySports:

"First I have a contract with the club, but if one day I want to sign (for another club), Liverpool will hear the offer, as it does with other players," Suarez was quoted as telling Spanish newspaper Marca. They must agree with other teams, but the word of the player, in this case mine, is important. If you need a change, you should listen to the player. "Every player aspires (to be the best) and if you ask a child of eight years they would say one day they would go to Real Madrid or Barcelona."

Suarez, who signed a new contract last summer and has four years of his current deal left to run, has claimed manager Brendan Rodgers is aware of his desire to leave. But Liverpool disputed that in a statement released last month and said they expected their star man to honour his contract.

As per Mirror Football:

Angry Liverpool will deliver a put-up-or-shut-up ultimatum to loose-lipped star Luis Suarez.

Weary of the unsettled striker's almost daily public pronouncements on his future, the Anfield giants will now lay down the law and demand he put in an official transfer request if he remains determined to leave. Suarez has a clause in his contract allowing him to leave if an offer exceeding £40million is made, a fact which makes all of his many and varied outbursts redundant.

So far though, no interest in the player has been expressed by any club, let alone formal offers made. Real have yet to even make an enquiry, and Suarez's continuing outbursts strongly suggest they are trying to force the price down by encouraging the player to agitate for a move and make it impossible for him to stay at Anfield.

Liverpool are wise to that predictable tactic though, and it will not be allowed to happen.

So, though it seems the player may be trying to orchestrate a move away from Anfield, it is far from guaranteed that he will be headed out the exit door this summer.

That Suarez could stay at the club and give less than 100 percent commitment when he takes to the field is inconceivable; Liverpool fans should no longer harbour the notion that it is because he feels something for the club, but rather accept that this is simply the sportsman Suarez is.

If he plays, he must win.

It doesn't matter that it is Liverpool, only that he cannot lose. And that will have to be fine for fans, who will require the club to use Suarez's talents in the way he is trying to use the club to work a transfer elsewhere.

So if Suarez remains a part of the team, his talent dictates that Rodgers must find a way to fit him into the starting lineup—though no longer with the emphasis on building a team around him. That instead will fall to the likes of Coutinho, Sturridge, and, if the Reds go on to secure his signature, Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

That quartet could indeed make up Liverpool's attacking diamond next term on a regular basis.

Mkhitaryan the attacking midfielder in the centre, providing balance, thrust from deep and goals. Coutinho, the wizard from the left, cutting infield and creating chances. Sturridge the striker, giving vertical threat with pace and finishing ability. And Suarez, now from the right, capable of going inside or out, putting crosses over or getting himself into the box to shoot from new ridiculous angles. And probably score.

It would be a fourth new role for Suarez at the club, playing from the right on a regular basis.

Would it be the role which suits him best? Almost certainly not.

Would that matter? Not any more. Liverpool will take what he has and use it to their own benefit, fitting him in where there is space. The attacking quartet of Mkhitaryan-Coutinho-Sturridge-Suarez is a top-four one, no doubt about it, and that's what the Reds need.

Next summer Suarez will still have three more years to run on his deal, and the same release clause, so Liverpool need not be in a hurry to accommodate potential interested parties. They can pay up or Suarez can see out another year on Merseyside, becoming a fourth wheel in Rodgers' new-look side.

Behind those four, the quality and depth on offer from the bench will dictate just how close the Reds might go to the Champions League places, and who knows then if Suarez would have a change of heart?

But for his future, be it as a Red, he could well be looking at a new semi-permanent role on the right side of his team's attack, asked to help out defensively more than previously—but this time with others to fill in for him at the attacking end of the pitch, thereby benefitting the team more than ever.


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