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 Posted by Graham Hunter
Jul 11, 2014

Questions to answer for Luis Suarez

Liverpool legend Steve Nicol expresses his feelings on Luis Suarez leaving Liverpool for Barcelona.

The furore that surrounds Luis Suarez's actions, for good or bad, tends to obscure any context. In England there's a false impression that one strong season -- 31 league goals but no trophies -- makes him the best in the world. His work rate, his technique, his will to win and the quality of some of his goals mean that he is, genuinely, outstanding. But such is the hyperbole that there's no room for context.

- Report: Liverpool confirm Suarez-to-Barcelona move
- Kelly: Suarez someone else's problem now
- Molyneux-Carter: Top five Suarez moments at Liverpool

His fellow professionals, the captains and coaches of FIFA's international teams, voted him the 19th best player for 2013. And while his rating, football-wise, would increase for this year's Ballon d'Or based on his continued level of performance and goal production in the second half of that season, his appreciation will also be damaged by (A) his biting of Giorgio Chiellini and (B) the fact that he's currently banned until October.

Another part of the context that is ignored is that Barcelona have, for better or worse, had their bad boys or problem players before: Diego Maradona finished the 1984 cup final kicking Athletic Bilbao players rather than the ball and was banned for three months for his behavior; Romario was clinically incapable of arriving back from his holidays on time, or avoiding the nightclubs of the Catalan capital; Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov waged all-out war on Louis van Gaal when the two men were together at the Camp Nou club -- indeed, he was fined, banned and eventually pushed out of the club for criticising the Dutchman in public.

Meanwhile, current star Lionel Messi's documentation was so outrageously complicated at the start of his professional career with Barcelona that he ended up banned from playing competitive football for six months.

Over at Manchester United, their modern history was changed by a player, Eric Cantona, who was repeatedly banned and fined for actions such as attacking teammates, throwing the ball at a referee, calling the French Federation bigwigs "idiots" to their faces and kung fu-kicking an abusive fan at Crystal Palace.

Problem players are sometimes worth the fuss.

Suarez's behaviour is abhorrent, and there seem to be many within the professional game who don't feel he's worth another chance in his career, given his repetitive offenses. That would certainly be my instinct. But in a playing sense he unites everything Barcelona have begun to lack in recent seasons.

Their previous excellence, for some time under Frank Rijkaard, then throughout Pep Guardiola's reign, and at the best of the late Tito Vilanova's title-winning season, has been such that it feels like they are in a slump right now. Yet last season hinged on fine details: they lost the cup final by a single (exceptional) goal; they lost out to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinal, again by a single goal; and that elusive solitary goal would also have given them victory in La Liga on the last day of the season if they could have found it against Atletico.

LUIS SUAREZ 2013-14 SEASON IN NUMBERS

31 - Premier League goals, winning the Golden Boot.
12 - Most assists in the Premier League.
24 - Scored the most goals from inside the box.
 4 - Scored the most goals from counterattacks.
•  9 - Had the most shots that hit the woodwork.
•  3 - Most penalties won in the Premier League.
• 237 - Attempted more dribbles than any other player.

Those kinds of slight margins are those that a driven, aggressive, talented and hungry footballer like Suarez can erase.

He's going to meet his match in Luis Enrique though. The coach wasn't a serial biter like his new striker, but he was utterly driven to succeed. And he still is. There is an intensity about men like him, Suarez, Guardiola, Fabio Capello and Sir Alex Ferguson that raises them above their peers.

Introducing the Uruguayan -- someone patently liked by his former teammates, and a man showered in praise by his former captain Steve Gerrard on Friday when the deal was announced -- into this Barcelona dressing room will inspire some and force others to examine their own levels of work, intensity and commitment.

Together, these are the reasons Enrique has been a key force behind this purchase.

Barcelona are still a board-run club; little wonder when the sales of Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez, plus a reported 79 million-euro outlay on their new striker, are all in play. But the manager wanted the player -- Suarez is not being foisted on him.

The FIFA ban that inhibits Suarez for another three-and-a-half months may yet be reduced if the appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is successful -- and you'd suggest that his inability to train might be a weak point in the punishment -- but the club know exactly what they are buying and what the scale of the problem is.

Conspiracy theorists will be looking out with eagle eyes for the imminent announcement of the 2014-15 fixture calendar, and if the first Clasico against Real Madrid is scheduled for a date before Suarez can return to football, then just wait for the wail of "conspiracy!" from the Catalan lobby. (You won't have to believe it, mind -- it's just a warning.)

However, having conceded that Suarez combines all the football elements that Barcelona require right now to make them more competitive, there are still a plethora of "buts" ...

For example, the equilibrium that Guardiola established at Barcelona during those golden years has been abandoned. No matter your allegiance, it is clear that he gifted the world a style of football that sharpened the senses, and would make even cynics fall in love with the game all over again.

But he believed in defensive rigor; he believed that in order to attack with verve, anarchy, daring and constant hunger for goals, there had to be an exhaustive emphasis on how, when and where to defend.

This Barcelona board is patently one that is no better educated than the intricacies of playground football: attack a lot, try to score more than the other team and forget about defending.

Barcelona have needed replenishment in height, defensive organisation, physical fitness and pace at the back for pretty much three seasons now. They still haven't addressed that problem, and until those promises are fulfilled their club's fans will not be wholly won over by the addition of Suarez to Neymar and Messi.

Suarez's arrival makes it a gross (not net) outlay of just under 220 million euros on two strikers (Neymar and Suarez) and two keepers (Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre ter Stegen) over the past 12 months. This lacks balance; it smacks of spending your way out of problems.

Florentino Perez would have been happy with a signing like Suarez.

Then, finally, a little bit of lateral context: in many ways, the signing of Suarez is a "Real Madrid-style" deal -- or, at the very least, a "Florentino Perez-style" deal.

Suarez, like Neymar, is a player Madrid wanted and planned to have: high profile, high price, high maintenance; right in the Galactico model. But there has been a significant change around the Bernabeu since Jose Mourinho left.

Talented young Spaniards have been signed, there is a greater identity to the team, Zinedine Zidane has now been given not one but two highly significant roles and, at the same time as Suarez is being announced, Madrid are welcoming back a deeply significant man in Fernando Hierro.

I'm not going to compare him with Pep at the Camp Nou; that's neither his role -- he's going to be Carlo Ancelotti's assistant -- nor would it be fair. But in his achievements, attitude, intensity, ambition and ability, he resembles Pep. That's why, despite being divided by the Clasico in their playing days, they formed a firm understanding and friendship while together for the national team.

Madrid are repatriating a guy needlessly pushed out in the early, boorish days of Florentino's presidency -- a guy who went on to play a crucial role in how Spain prepared to win and then won the World Cup in 2010. It's an interesting step.

Hierro being welcomed back into the Real Madrid family, given the way the team has been reshaped in the past 12 months, smacks of what Barcelona were doing six or seven years ago and went on to benefit hugely from.

Suarez? Well, honestly, it smacks of Galactico ideals. His punishment, however long, will be served, and in line with the way our society works, he'll deserve a clean start, rehabilitation and some clemency from our opprobrium by then.

He's an outstanding player, no question. But whether he's the right player, in the right position? Whether he will increase or decrease Messi's contentment at his club; help or hinder Neymar's development? Whether the outlay will reduce the club's ability to reinforce their defence? Whether he'll stop his regular descent into reprehensible behavior? All these questions will be in the spotlight from October onwards.

Graham Hunter

Graham Hunter covers Spanish football and FC Barcelona for ESPN FC, Sky Sports and a number of newspapers and magazines across the world. He is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World."