The Uruguayan scored his second hat-trick of the season to erase the Reds’ bad memories of the DW Stadium after last season’s controversy in the wake of his racism ban
By Oliver Platt
It had been over 15 months since Luis Suarez and Liverpool last visited the DW Stadium for a day they would rather forget. This return will have gone a long way to erasing those memories; the t-shirts and the appalling lack of judgement can be consigned to the past. This time, Suarez was fine-tuning his pitch for Premier League player of the season.
When Wigan hosted the Reds for this fixture on December 21 2011, the visiting players infamously warmed-up in ‘Suarez 7’ tops a day after the Uruguayan had been banned for eight matches for racially abusing Patrice Evra. With the sentence suspended pending appeal, Suarez donned a t-shirt himself and played 87 minutes but could not lift an anaemic Liverpool attack out of a 0-0 stalemate.
It was just about typical of their season. Liverpool struggled for goals throughout the campaign and Charlie Adam missed a penalty on the night but the football was overshadowed by Suarez’s continued domination of the headlines. The club had experienced upheaval at just about every level in 2010 and 2011 and was hopelessly ill-equipped to manage such a crisis.
In terms of PR, Liverpool acted disastrously and things did not get any better after Jen Chang was appointed as director of communications in May 2012. The contrast at all levels of the club then to the state of affairs since Brendan Rodgers took over is a huge credit to the Northern Irish manager and Suarez has embodied the improvement.
The 26-year-old has been adored by the Reds faithful since his first match at Anfield but winning round the rest of the league has been a rather longer process. Slowly, though, the accusatory chants have faded. At the height of the racism affair, many questioned whether Suarez was worth the trouble. Liverpool’s faith, however badly it manifested itself, has paid off.
On the pitch, Suarez has lost none of his will to win, his bite and his edge, but he is more measured now and waits to strike at the right moment. “I can’t conceive anyone wasting even five minutes in a game. I can’t bear the idea of not trying to make the most of every single second,” he once said. It was an admirable approach, but not always a healthy one.
The statistics speak for themselves. Suarez is second only to Leighton Baines in chances created in the Premier League this season*. Whereas 47 per cent of the opportunities the Everton left-back has engineered have come from set pieces, however, 94% of Suarez’s have come from open play. Among strikers, he is streets ahead of the rest of the field, with 78 chances created to Rickie Lambert’s 59.
Suarez notched top-flight goals 19, 20 and 21 for the season in the 4-0 victory on Saturday evening to move ahead of Robin Van Persie in the race for the Golden Boot largely thanks to a marked improvement in his chance and clear-cut chance conversion rates, which have both approximately doubled. His minutes-per-goal ratio has subsequently halved.
The controversy has not completely gone away – Sir Alex Ferguson described him as “laden” with it in January – but Rodgers has dealt with flashpoints decisively. He labelled his star’s admission of diving earlier this year “unacceptable” but Suarez is far from the only guilty party in the Premier League in that regard.
It also highlights a change of approach; Kenny Dalglish indulged his striker, letting him get on with whatever he pleased. The Scot, despite his best intentions, only ever made matters worse. He himself donned one of those t-shirts, after all.
Rodgers deserves praise for his man-management and handling of his squad, even if he takes the flak for his strange interviews from time to time. There is a unity that extends from young upstarts like Raheem Sterling all the way through to seasoned veterans such as Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard.
Liverpool are in a period of transition but those elder statesmen have not been marginalised – the handling of veterans proved to be the undoing of another Jose Mourinho protege last season as Andre Villas-Boas was given his marching orders at Chelsea.
There is still work to be done on the field – you can never say for certain that Liverpool have ‘turned the corner – but Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho have added much-needed support for Suarez.
There is a stability to the Rodgers regime, so much so that while Chelsea fans sang songs about Jose Mourinho to further destabilise Rafael Benitez at Stamford Bridge earlier on Saturday, Liverpool fans’ chants in praise of the Spaniard at the DW Stadium should not be taken as a swipe at their current manager.
That stability has helped Suarez as much as anyone. Not long ago, Liverpool, and Dalglish in particular, struggled to manage the worst of one of the Premier League’s most colourful characters. Now they are drawing the best out of one its finest players.
*Statistics from EPLIndex.com.
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