By Paul Gardner
Liverpool, having said goodbye to Fernando Torres -- whose performances of late had been half-hearted, to put it mildly -- this week welcomed a new forward in Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, signed from Ajax.
Things went well. Suarez, within a day of arriving, was on the bench for Wednesday’s game against Stoke City. He entered the game at the 63-minute mark -- and 10 minutes later, he scored.
Debuts don’t get much better than that. Liverpool coach Kenny Dalglish was of course ecstatic: "He got his work permit on Tuesday and was in the squad Wednesday. He has not even had the opportunity to train with us.”
So -- according to Dalglish -- even better things are to be expected from Suarez once he has got used to his teammates and adapted to the demands of the Premier League.
Well, maybe. On Wednesday it took Suarez about 10 minutes to adapt. After 10 minutes of seeming slightly lost, Suarez looked -- to quote the TV commentator -- “at home.” The goal followed, as did a couple of skillful touches on the ball.
One wonders about those adjustments. We all know, our beloved TV commentators remind us incessantly throughout every game, how important it is for players to be “making runs” all over the place.
A word on runs. Probably 50 percent of these are movements that are so flamingly obvious that it is quite absurd for anyone to make out that they involve anything special in the way of intuition or physical effort. Of the rest, probably another 25 percent achieve nothing, but we can then blame that on the player with the ball who “didn’t see the run.” Maybe he didn’t -- or maybe he did, and had a better idea of what to do with the ball than to pass it to the runner.
But all is not lost. We are often invited to understand that, even though the runner didn’t get the ball, that was never really his intention -- he was actually making a “decoy run” to distract the attention of the defenders.
As it happens the concept of a decoy run in a fluid, improvised sport like soccer makes no sense at all -- other than on set plays -- and even then, it is a concept that should be viewed as a changeable option rather than a fixed play.
Suarez made plenty of runs on Wednesday ... why wouldn’t he? It would be surprising if he had reached his position as one of the game’s top goalscorers by standing still.
Can we not assume that he knows how and when and where to “make runs,” just as he clearly knows how to score goals: 81 goals in 101 games for Ajax, 16 in 38 games for Uruguay. And now 1 goal in 1 game for Liverpool.
Is there really anything that Suarez needs to learn about making runs or scoring goals? Who needs to make the adjustments -- Suarez or his teammates? Or neither?
It is, of course, the accepted wisdom that the more time a team spends training together, the better they will be. Like so much “accepted wisdom” this is demonstrably inaccurate. It may be so, but it may not be -- the relationship between practice and the actual playing of the game remains mysterious.
Suarez will do his adapting all right -- but the part that matters, both for him and his teammates, will come in the heat of real games. Those training sessions ... there will be plenty of opportunity there for Suarez to get to know his partners, to laugh and joke and develop the necessary camaraderie.
No doubt there will be some serious “adaptation” lessons too, but they are not likely to be ones that result in any noticeable improvement in Suarez’s ability to score goals. Suarez will have it drummed into him that the English Premier League is the toughest league in the world, and the fastest and so on (well, they’re all good selling points for the EPL marketing staff) and that he will have to toughen up because he can’t possibly be ready for such a macho setup. He has shown, already, that he is ready.
And then will come all that guff about tracking back and defensive responsibilities. There were, admittedly, not too many signs on Wednesday of Suarez wanting to do much in the way of defending. An attitude that I approve of, but one that may well cause some friction at Liverpool -- even with a former forward, and a damn good one -- as the coach.
The fact that Liverpool has also just signed, for an English record fee of $52 million, another striker -- the towering and lumbering Andy Carroll - complicates matters. At 6-foot-3 Carroll will -- count on it -- be used as a target man. That is what alwayshappens when a massive center forward takes the field. The long balls start flying into the penalty area, and that dreadful term “knock-down” -- sometimes known as “second ball” -- becomes an important part of the tactical approach.
Suarez may find himself operating as a scavenger, lurking near Carroll, waiting to pounce on the knock-downs. There is an obvious danger here. The EPL, besides being the world’s greatest, etc, etc, league, is also the world’s most primitive at the tactical level. Knock-downs and crosses are still the basics of English attacking soccer.
As a skillful instinctive goalscorer, Suarez may have trouble with the sheer crudity of all that. He may want to find out from his Uruguay teammate Diego Forlan just why it was that Forlan was such a wonderful goalscorer wherever he played ... except for his spell at Manchester United. Was that all Forlan’s fault -- or was the English soccer mentality to blame? How could the man be a flop at ManU in 2004 - yet go on to win the Spanish scoring title in 2005, and then be voted the outstanding player of the 2010 World Cup?
Possibly Forlan simply got to ManU too soon. Chicharito is there now, scoring crucial goals so maybe the English mentality is changing -- hopefully to the point where it will allow a highly skilled goalscorer like Suarez to do more than track back and feed off knock-downs and crosses.