x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Strikers who offer more than goals in the Premier League

Robin Van Persie and Luis Suarez score plenty but are comparable for their versatility and commitment to the team collective, writes Richard Jolly.

Luis Suarez has proved to be a team man at Liverpool. Cal Sport Media via AP Images
Luis Suarez has proved to be a team man at Liverpool. Cal Sport Media via AP Images

The renewal of English football's greatest rivalry doubles up as a shoot-out for personal silverware. Manchester United have 19 titles to Liverpool's 18, the Merseysiders five European Cups to the Mancunians' three but, much as this can play a part in the Premier League title race, it is about the individual honours.

Robin van Persie against Luis Suarez is catalyst against talisman, top scorer versus top scorer.

United are a team who have been transformed by one man while Liverpool have been branded a one-man team. European and South American, stylist and sprinter, left footer and right footer, these are very different players but the common denominators are goals and yet, paradoxically, the reality that they are more than just goalscorers.

Van Persie has 16 to Suarez's 15 in the league. He scores at a faster rate - one per 104 minutes as against the Uruguayan's one per 120 - and from fewer shots, 63 to 92, a sign that Suarez tends to bombard opponents goals with efforts. Van Persie may be more clinical but his Liverpool rival is more persistent.

United's £24 million (Dh142m) signing is also officially the more creative, with six assists to three. Yet that is also a sign that there are more potential scorers in the league leaders' side.

So, too, is the way the goals have been shared around. Van Persie has contributed 30 per cent of their goals. Suarez has 44 per cent of Liverpool's.

What both share is a knack of delivering important goals. Liverpool have first-hand knowledge of Van Persie's capacity for delivering when it matters most. His ice-cool penalty gave United a 2-1 win at Anfield. By turning a draw into a win, it earned another two points.

It is a happy habit that has justified their decision to spend more than they intended.

"It was a lot of money for a player in the last year of his contract," said Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager.

"But you have to pay the price that the club [Arsenal] are sticking out for, whether it is one year [left] on his contract, two or three. We wanted him badly, so we were prepared to go the extra mile."

An extra mile in one respect, but a huge distance in another. Subtract Van Persie's goals and United would have 21 fewer points.

Remove Suarez's strikes and Liverpool would only have seven fewer. But as those included their first two points of the season, plus a hat-trick in their belated first win at Norwich City, they would have spent an extended spell in the relegation zone but for his input. Rather than enduring a slow start to the season, Liverpool could have been thrust into trouble.

Instead of crisis, they have had the constant where Suarez is concerned.

"The lad is laden with controversy," Ferguson said.

Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, has discovered that defending him is a full-time job, with accusations of diving and, particularly after last Sunday's FA Cup tie against Mansfield, of deliberate handball, leading some to brand him a cheat.

"I really felt for Suarez last week," Rodgers said. "He got absolutely vilified."

Unfairly, his manager thinks, calling him "a wonderful professional and a good family man", but no meeting with United can pass without mention of Suarez's eight-match ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra last season. Rodgers prefers to focus on his on-field excellence and paeans to Suarez have become a weekly event at Anfield.

Like his Liverpool counterpart, Ferguson has spent much of the season praising his leading marksman. He has often compared Van Persie to Eric Cantona but, unlike in the explosive Frenchman's time at Old Trafford, the only real overreactions have come from the manager, who said Swansea City's Ashley Williams could have killed the Dutchman in December's 1-1 draw.

When more restrained, Ferguson has suggested Van Persie is a role model to the other attackers. And that is another fundamental difference.

While there has been much talk of United's quartet of strikers, also including Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney and prompting mention of the four forwards of their treble-winning campaign in 1999, Suarez has been left alone in attack.

Until Daniel Sturridge's arrival this month, he was the sole specialist striker available. It forms part of his case for the Footballer of the Year award; the reality that he has been starved of support makes his exploits all the more remarkable. Apart from him, only Steven Gerrard has more than two league goals.

"I have always said it has to be more than just Luis who scores," said Rodgers. "There is no point in Luis scoring 40 goals if your next best scorer is on three or four."

While the Northern Irishman has been heartened by recent contributions from others, the fact remains that his leading marksman has been left more solo artist than member of an ensemble group. A Suarez run, where a series of defenders are confronted by the speed and skill of the Uruguayan, serves as a microcosm of Liverpool's season. It can seem him against the world.

And yet one of the many paradoxes about Suarez is that the individualist is highly regarded for his commitment to the collective.

"He's a real team player," added Rodgers. It may be the time to demonstrate that.

Because one of the ironies of the meeting of prolific forwards is that both may be shifted deeper. Sturridge is pencilled in as Liverpool's lead striker, with Suarez left to wreak havoc from a nominal position as a winger, albeit with a roving brief.

Meanwhile, with Rooney injured, the predatory Hernandez could lead the line for United. Not that it should worry Van Persie. The Dutchman has long appreciated Arsene Wenger's description of him as "a nine-and-a-half": scorer and supplier, part No 9, part No 10.

But as Suarez, part of Liverpool's tradition of great No 7s arrives at Old Trafford, it may be both men a 10 - out of 10, for their season's efforts.

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