x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Suarez and Carroll offer stark divide in fortunes

When Liverpool and West Ham United face off on Sunday, the hit of Luis Suarez and miss of Andy Carroll will never be more vividly on display, writes Richard Jolly.

Luis Suarez has scored 29 goals in 27 Premier League matches this season. Phil Noble / Reuters
Luis Suarez has scored 29 goals in 27 Premier League matches this season. Phil Noble / Reuters

As Liverpool look to return to heights they have not scaled since 1990, this is a reunion of men recruited in less happy times. For 90 minutes, much of the class of 2011 are back together.

For the first time since leaving Anfield, Andy Carroll faces Liverpool. So, too, does Stewart Downing, signed by both Liverpool and West Ham United to be his supply line.

Much as Brendan Rodgers praised both on Friday, calling them “fantastic” players, he willingly sold them.

Luis Suarez and Jordan Henderson, the two who stayed, have been pivotal in a tale of exponential improvement.

They were the four most expensive signings in Liverpool’s 2011 spending spree, costing more than £90 million (Dh548m) of the £115m Kenny Dalglish paid.

Now they will take the field together for the first time since the Scot’s final game in charge. Rodgers, then manager of Swansea, was an opponent that day.

Dalglish’s four biggest buys are separated by the huge divide between success and failure, yet inextricably linked.

Collectively, they provide an illustration of how Liverpool have changed, of the radical difference between a side who limped home in eighth place in 2012 and a team blazing a glorious, goalscoring trail at the top of the table in the current campaign.

When the 2011/12 season began, they occupied the four most attacking positions in Liverpool’s opening-day line-up. Suarez and Carroll were the strikers, flanked by Henderson and Downing.

The flaws in the thinking were clear. The forwards were a mismatched duo. The free spirit and huge talent of Suarez mean he is not designed to feed on the flick-ons from a giant target man and Rodgers liberated him by exiling Carroll to Upton Park – at first on loan and then permanently – where he is much better suited to Sam Allardyce’s more direct game.

If it was immediately apparent that Henderson was not a right winger, his versatility has been a boon and a burden alike.

The question of where best to accommodate him was finally answered when Rodgers relocated Steven Gerrard to the base of the midfield and installed the younger Englishman as his replacement as the box-to-box runner.

As he has flourished, his initial £16m cost is mentioned rather less. A propensity to pay over the odds meant transfer fees served as lightning rods for criticism of Dalglish and his players.

At £35m – albeit offset by the £50m sale of Fernando Torres to Chelsea – Carroll remains the most expensive Englishman in history. He scored six goals in 44 league games for Liverpool.

The more damning statistics come from Downing. The £20m winger finished an excruciating 2011/12 league season with 72 shots, 56 crosses, no goals and no assists.

Like Marouane Fellaini now, he became a byword for a failed transfer strategy. In Liverpool’s case, the policy of buying British was derided.

The exception was an import, whose ability was evident every time he took the field. Yet Suarez’s 2011/12 campaign was problematic and, at times, unproductive. He ran defences ragged but, all too often, he failed the numbers game.

He had 128 efforts at goal in the league and just 11 nestled in the net.

His greater effectiveness now is reflected in the figures. The division’s runaway top scorer and the overwhelming favourite to win the Footballer of the Year award has 29 goals in 27 league games. His chance conversion rate has gone up from 8.5 per cent to 18.9 per cent.

He was always a menace, but he has added potency. An entire side lacked it two years ago. While Liverpool bemoaned their ill-fortune as they kept striking the woodwork, the sad reality was that they scored only 47 league goals, their joint fewest in a season since 1914.

Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have topped that tally on their own, with seven games to go, and Liverpool are on course to record a century for the first time since 1896.

It highlights a startling, two-year turnaround, one that could be completed by the title.

Unless, in a bitter irony, two men who cost Liverpool £55m damage their prospects in a second season.

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