Passion-player Suarez leading by example in Liverpool’s pursuit of top-four finish

Striker’s goals dividend proving a winner with fans and team-mates alike this season

Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker competes with Luis Suarez of Liverpool during Saturday’s Premier League match at Anfield which Liverpool won 5-1. Photograph:  Michael Regan/Getty Images

Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker competes with Luis Suarez of Liverpool during Saturday’s Premier League match at Anfield which Liverpool won 5-1. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Mon, Feb 10, 2014, 01:00

Thirty seconds after the final whistle at Anfield Luis Suarez trudged about with a despondent expression that would not have looked out of place on the Arsenal bench.

Liverpool had won 5-1 but the Uruguayan striker still wasn’t happy. How could he be? He hadn’t scored. Later, Brendan Rodgers praised Suarez’s selfless efforts on the right flank. His willingness to serve was helping Liverpool towards their objective of Champions League qualification.

The mercurial goal-scorer has a personal ambition also: to win the European Golden Shoe. He knows that staying ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo means scoring in every game. The Real Madrid superstar is never asked to play the selfless role. Not many big-name players are this biddable. Maybe Suarez feels he owes something to Rodgers, who provided him with the conditions to demonstrate his capabilities.

Unlike Kenny Dalglish, Rodgers understood that Suarez was wasted chasing Andy Carroll knockdowns. He made the controversial player the focus of Liverpool’s attack. And his faith has been rewarded. One quality Rodgers shares with Suarez is a capacity for improvisation. When you survey the manager’s time at Liverpool, you’re struck by the extent to which he appears to have made it up as he went along.

His Swansea team was obsessed with possession. Even now, two managers on from Rodgers, Swansea have more possession on average than any other side in the league. Rodgers arrived at Liverpool intending to introduce the same style, dubbing it “death by football”.

Possession football
Twenty months on, a different kind of team has emerged. Liverpool are ninth in the possession table, but they’re first in shots on target, first in dribbles

and second in tackles.

Swansea’s guiding principles were possession and control; Liverpool are all about speed and energy. Let no one accuse Rodgers of dogmatism. A style based on pressing and pace requires highly-motivated players, and the manager frequently lauds Liverpool’s “appetite”.

A hungry team always reflects well on its coach. So Liverpool supporters shouldn’t be riled by the observation that if their team is playing with new energy and ambition, it’s because Suarez has shown them the way. He’s the true instigator of the Red renaissance and not just because he’s scored or assisted more than half of their goals.

He has done for Liverpool what Eric Cantona achieved for Manchester United and Dennis Bergkamp for Arsenal. His passion for the game has inspired everyone around him. If it sounds silly to suggest an individual player can dictate the attitude of a team, consider the thoughts of FC Bayern captain Philipp Lahm, who was recently described by Pep Guardiola as “perhaps the most intelligent player I’ve ever coached”

This was a compliment so effusive you wonder who he was trying to annoy back at Barcelona. Guardiola respects Lahm’s big brain so much that he moved him from right-back to central midfield so he could direct more of the play. In 2011, Lahm published an autobiography entitled The Subtle Difference: How to Become a Top Footballer, which was partly a manual of professional advice for aspiring Lahms.

The celebrated Bayern skipper believes the most important thing in football is not pace, technique, or intelligence. No. The most essential quality in the game is passion. “Passion is an emotion that liberates reserves of energy you didn’t know you had,” he writes.

He adds: “With passion, one player – one player alone – can lift the performance of a whole team. It’s not a question of his technical ability . . . but of his character, his devotion to his team and to the game. The passionate player does things other players won’t do. He chases a ball that looks lost, and if he gets it . . . it’s not just a ball-recovery, it’s a signal: see? we can do it! if only we want it enough, if we go for it with absolute commitment.”

‘Get your act together!’
Luis Suarez does this on several

occasions in every game. In the first minute of Saturday’s game he won the free-kick from which Liverpool took the lead, sneaking in behind Per Mertesacker and hustling for a ball that most strikers would have left to the defenders.

Lahm: “Such moments strengthen a team, change its aura . . . it doesn’t just affect opponents, who feel like they’re under pressure in every position. The message is the same for team-mates. The passion of your team-mates is a challenge to get the same out of yourself. ‘Get your act together!’ Individuals who seize such moments with soul and energy can take a whole team with them. Their effort is a message to all the others . . . they shape the character of the team.”

This process can also happen in reverse, as demonstrated in the same game by Mesut Özil. The sight of Arsenal’s star flopping under Jordan Henderson’s challenge in the build-up to the third goal captured the difference between the sides. On Wednesday, against Manchester United, Özil must do something to dispel the growing suspicion that for all his class there is a touch of the Berbatovs about him. He could learn from the way Suarez set the tone for his team on Saturday.

It wasn’t just that he intimidated Arsenal with moments of outrageous quality, like that spectacular shot off the post. It was that he looked frustrated to the point of tears when Sturridge shot wide at 2-0. It was that his side had won 5-1 and he still did not appear satisfied.

With Suarez in that mood, it would take a brave set of team-mates to let him down.

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