Luis Suarez is rarely the victim, but right now he’s something of a victim of his own sublime season. The Uruguayan has been so mind-blowingly good that he’s been compared to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and touted as ‘the world’s best’ by biased teammates and brave pundits, but once your name finds it way into that debate, the level of scrutiny goes up a couple of notches.
Having toned down his misbehaviour this season (281 days and counting since his last ‘workplace incident’), attention has turned to flaws in his ability. The critique that pops up all too frequently is that he doesn’t seem to be a man for big games; a reputation cemented when he failed to score in two matches in a row over the Christmas period against Chelsea and Manchester City.
Whether Suarez can defy this now commonly-held view is a matter of particular immediate interest, with the Merseyside Derby kicking off at 8pm on Tuesday.
Something of a Score Point?
Suarez leads the Premier League top scorer chart by a country mile with 22, ahead of second-best Sergio Aguero’s paltry 14. Most Premier League defenders have yet to come to terms which his twists and turns (just ask Norwich’s back four), but it looks like the teams above Liverpool in the table have discovered the secret to nullifying his threat.
He was, by his standards, undistinguished against both Chelsea and Manchester City and earlier in the season, he was uncharacteristically ineffective against Arsenal; well marshalled by Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny.
The root of the perception that Suarez is ‘not a big game player’ lies in his scoring record. He has only failed to score in six games, including City, Chelsea and Arsenal – all three of which ended in defeat for Liverpool. Nor did he find the net against Newcastle (8th), Aston Villa (10th) and Hull City (11th).
Scoring isn’t the only facet of the Uruguayan’s game, but he also failed to record an assist against Arsenal, City or Chelsea, and while his passing accuracy stayed above his overall average, his shooting precision was well below its usual 61% in all three games.
Previous seasons’ statistics suggest this is a new trend. Taking a top 6 of Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Manchester United, Manchester City and Spurs as Liverpool’s ‘big games’ in 2011/12 and 2012/13, 27% of Suarez’s overall goals total from these two seasons (33) came against those sides. He also made 3 assists against those teams, accounting for 37.5% of his total 8 assists in that period. He appeared in 4 games against 4 of the 6 sides, apart from 3 apiece against Everton and Manchester City.
This season, having played a game against all of those sides except for United, only 14% of his goals and just 40% of his assists have come against the Top Six. He did score two and set up two against Spurs at White Hart Lane, but apart from a goal against Everton, that has been the sum of his contribution against the other teams in contention for a top four place to date this year.
Suarez tended to rise to the occasion in the past. Take his extra time goal against Arsenal in late 2011, having come on as a 71st minute substitute, or his three assists for Dirk Kuyt in March of that year against Manchester United. He celebrated scoring against Everton in October 2012 by belly flopping in front of David Moyes’ dugout.
Just last season, he scored Liverpool’s equaliser in a 2-2 draw against Chelsea in the 97th minute. That was the day he famously ate Branislav Ivanovic with some fava beans and a nice chianti. Hardly anonymous.
So all eyes will be on Suarez – as they almost always are – against Everton on Tuesday evening. If he fails to score and Liverpool lose, their neighbours will go two points ahead. If he leads his side to a win, Liverpool will be four points better off. Not a big game player? Well, they don’t come much bigger than this.