By Jonathan Wilson
Luis Suarez hit the woodwork eight times last season, which would have been a Premier League record had Robin van Persie, as well as scoring 30 goals, not also hit the frame of the goal 10 times. It is the central statistic in the debate over the forward and his effectiveness, perhaps even over Liverpool as a whole.
At Ajax, he scored 81 goals in 110 games. With the Uruguay national team he’s scored 28 in 54. Scoring ratios can be misleading because they say little about the level of opposition or the style of play, but it’s fair to say that Liverpool would have expected more than 16 league goals in a little over a season and a half when they spent £23 million on him.
And that’s where the woodwork figure comes in. At the moment for Liverpool, Suarez scores a goal every three games. Had all of those efforts that hit the woodwork gone in, he’d have scored one every other game.
The player himself seems baffled by how often he narrowly misses. “In Holland I was lucky,” he said in an interview with The Guardian last month. “It felt like everything went in. I could shoot with my shoulder or my tummy and it would go in. Now it’s different. I understand that I have to score more goals than I am scoring. Maybe you try to be so precise to make sure that the keeper doesn’t reach it that you end up hitting the post. Sometimes you hit it badly and it goes in. This year, maybe I’ll try to hit it badly.”
Bad luck? Being over-precise? A lack of confidence? When you see how Suarez can finish at times – think, for instance, of his goal for Uruguay against Paraguay in last year’s Copa America final and the two he got in the semi-final against Peru, or of his brilliant hat-trick for Liverpool against Norwich City in the league last season – you feel the issue can’t be technical, that it must be mental.
Suarez’s near-misses fitted into a wider pattern at Liverpool. They came eighth, their worst finish in over half a century, yet in the top five leagues in Europe, only Barcelona had a greater proportion of their play in the attacking third of the pitch. In only five of the 38 games did Liverpool have fewer shots than their opponents. Only three teams had more shots on goal than Liverpool last season. All of this suggests that, for all the criticism of their style of play, the issue was chance conversion: Liverpool missed five of their six penalties and hit the woodwork a total of 33 times.
Off target | Suarez has netted just 16 league goals for Liverpool
Maybe the issue is primarily one of confidence – perhaps once Suarez starts scoring goals he will find that the ball keeps going in, his reflexes and radar honed by the sort of surging self-belief he felt at Ajax and in Argentina last summer. Or perhaps the issue is as much one of style.
In signing Andy Carroll, an archetypal target-man, plus Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson, all of whom had been the best chance-creators at their respective clubs the previous season (and were the highest-ranked players in chance creation that Liverpool could realistically sign), the Reds made clear that their principal mode of attack was going to be to get crosses into the box. Suarez’s role in that, presumably, would have been to play off Carroll, feeding on knockdowns and looking to engage the more creative side of his game, sliding balls wide for players to deliver crosses into the middle.
With Carroll injured or out of form for so much of the season, though, and Adam, Downing and Henderson all struggling to adapt, that never quite worked out and Liverpool were, in a sense, caught between styles from an attacking point of view. It may be, odd as it may sound, that they were creating the wrong sort of chances.
Suarez has historically been at his best in fluid systems. Uruguay have played with a front two and front three under Oscar Tabarez, but in both formations the forwards are mobile: Suarez is always encouraged to drop deep or move wide (he started out as a winger), to manipulate defences through his understanding with Diego Forlan and Edinson Cavani, forwards who have a similar ability to play either as the main striker or off a main striker.
In that regard, the style Brendan Rodgers is trying to implement should be ideal for Suarez – and if it is, the confidence and his natural finishing may return.
They lack cover and experience, but in theory a front three of Suarez, Fabio Borini and Raheem Sterling with a player breaking from midfield should get the best out of the Uruguayan, as he acknowledges.
“It suits me,” he says. “He knows I never stand still, that I am always moving, not a static, fixed striker, and he thinks that in the way we are going to play now I can do a lot of damage.”
The question, then, is whether the rest of the side can provide the platform to turn theory into practice.