Liverpool have surprised all but risk upsetting the team chemistry trying to reintegrate their star striker, writes Jonathan Wilson.
Liverpool’s dilemma when Luis Suarez comes back
If the reception he received from Liverpool fans at various pre-season friendlies is anything to go by, most were delighted that the club has kept Luis Suarez.
He is still serving his second lengthy ban and his flirtation with Arsenal suggested his desire to leave was based less in his supposed victimisation at the hands of the British media than in his longing for Uefa Champions League football.
Yet Liverpool fans still adored him, which perhaps says as much about Liverpool’s recent lack of genuine stars as it does about Suarez.
Most probably assumed that, for Liverpool, this season was about clinging on for the half-dozen games until Suarez was available – yet without him they have thrived.
They are yet to concede a goal in the league, they have beaten Manchester United and if they win against Swansea City they will go three points clear at the top of the Premier League table.
It is early but, in a season in which the three wealthiest clubs are adjusting to new managers, Liverpool might just be emerging as surprise title contenders.
The complicating factor is what happens when Suarez returns, possibly for the Capital One Cup tie against United on September 25. Does he give their campaign additional impetus, or does accommodating him disrupt the sensitive mechanism of a balanced team?
Balance really has been the key to Liverpool this season. As the biggest teams across Europe have indulged in an orgy of spending – the cult of the star name overwhelming the art of team-building – Liverpool are almost unique in investing in a project in which philosophy and style are the priorities.
In the eight months since he joined the club, in January, Daniel Sturridge has made himself irreplaceable. All the promise he showed in glimmers at Manchester City and Chelsea has begun to be realised. He has scored three goals in three league games this season to go with 10 in 11 league starts last season.
What has been fascinating this season has been his interaction with Iago Aspas, who has operated almost as a second striker to the right. The Spaniard comes infield but tends to attack the space between the opposing left-back and the left-sided centre-back.
That has created space for Jordan Henderson, playing deeper and to the right, behind him.
Henderson lacks the technical skill of a true attacking midfielder but his energy and intelligence make him ideal in that hybrid role. He offers defensive cover but he also runs into space from deep.
Philippe Coutinho, dancing in from the left, offers natural width, while Steven Gerrard, age having curtailed his charging – and perhaps made his running more focused – fills the gap between the deep-lying Lucas Leiva and the rest of the midfield.
Everywhere there are triangles and nowhere are there lines, and that gives Liverpool’s passing a flexibility that is hard to counteract.
When Suarez returns, he will, presumably, take the Aspas role – which is one to which he seems ideally suited. He is familiar to playing off a front man with Uruguay, where Edinson Cavani has that role, and he seems happy enough to play anywhere across the front line: he is not a forward who demands to be the main striker and luxuriate in the validation of goals.
Even if he were, his mild case of Afonso Alves syndrome – the strange affliction that sees forwards who are prolific in the Dutch league find their finishing desert them in England (see also Dirk Kuyt, Mateja Kezman and, perhaps, Jozy Altidore) – means that Sturridge would take precedence.
The internal chemistry of a team is delicate but Suarez should – and for all his faults, he has never looked anything less than committed on the pitch – act as an enhanced version of Aspas.
The harder task for Brendan Rodgers may be in accommodating the more direct approach of Victor Moses.
He will, presumably, come in at times for Coutinho, but on the other flank, and there Suarez’s capacity to play on either side will be vital – although there would be disruption to Henderson’s role.
Suarez’s versatility means that however well Liverpool are playing, there should still be a place for him.
Their form is good and they have their most vaunted attacking player to return: a measure of concern is understandable but these are exciting times for Liverpool.