Luis Suarez is the latest Barcelona forward signing to settle slowly
Luis Suarez is a failure at Barcelona.
Bought to score goals, bought because he is prolific -- "he had one job ..." as the fashionable phrase goes, attached to a picture of some form of monumental screw-up. One job and he's made a pig's ear out of it.
Sadly for his critics, those who'd like to judge him right now, he comes from a long line of failures. Henrik Larsson. David Villa. Thierry Henry -- real no-goodniks like them.
The idea that the Uruguayan is failing is magnified by the fact that Barcelona are in the process of allowing the title to slip away. They were toothless in drawing 0-0 at Getafe last weekend and have scored very nearly a third fewer goals -- 12 compared to 31 -- away from home than the rampant Madrid.
If, the failure argument goes, Barcelona can't score and can't win "easy" away games like at Malaga or Getafe, then the implosion of the Luis Suarez signing is all the greater -- almost "nuclear" in football terms. Wait for it -- soon there'll be a column or a news article suggesting that he return to Liverpool to save their season, to give him his magic touch back.
Now, I've gone on record sufficiently often (when asked) about the former Liverpool striker, his character, the level of intent involved in his various offences and how little faith I have in his repentance or acceptance of "wrongdoing," that nobody should mistake me for a Luis Suarez-apologist.
However in footballing terms he deserves comprehension, proper analysis and context.
The stats read like this: played seven La Liga games (six starts), no goals. Played three Champions League games, two goals. Seven hundred and ninety four minutes, two goals and five assists -- six if you count his impish set-up for Gerard Piqué in the Catalan Supercup.
It's not really what Barcelona fans wanted or expected. It's certainly not what Barcelona's besieged director of football, Andoni Zubizarreta, needed in order to ease the immense pressure under which his tenure is creaking. But, with a nod to Liverpool FC: "This Is Barca."
When a foreign player moves to the Camp Nou, Catalan is not the only new language to be learned. There is a football language here and, in its time, it has left Larsson, Villa, Alexis and Henry if not speechless, then tongue-tied.
So why not Suarez?
The first dominant striker I witnessed suffering from this same football stutter was Henrik "King of Kings" Larsson. He'd helped Sweden to fourth place in a World Cup, won endless trophies with Celtic, scored prolifically, very nearly won the Glaswegians a UEFA Cup final against Jose Mourinho's brutally street-wise Porto -- we're talking about a thoroughbred with a degree in "I'm the boss."
Yet he arrived at the Camp Nou in 2004-05 and immediately was shown that not only would the ball not be played to him whenever he made an intelligent run, he'd actually have to wait until Xavi, Deco and Ronaldinho judged the time was right to release a pass.
At Celtic, Larsson commanded the ball -- at Barcelona he had to convince the midfield jury. Time and again he'd make precisely the movements which had yielded 242 goals at Celtic and umpteen more for Sweden. Time and again, he was frustrated.
Samuel Eto'o actively showed jealousy in not releasing the ball to this guy who was now, in the striker's mind, threatening his place. Larsson scored three times in his first 13 Liga games, but after suffering a broken bone in his leg in the November Clasico, the Swede used his rehab to watch and learn.
The following season he was inspirational. The Camp Nou crowd utterly adored him -- personally, I've never seen any foreign player other than Lionel Messi command such adoration there -- and he ended up changing the course of the 2006 Champions League final, then lifting that hallowed trophy.
Fast-forward to Henry. Arsenal's all-time record goal scorer, World Cup winner and European Champion -- a 24-karat superstar.
More fans turned out for his "open doors" welcome at the stadium than had for Ronaldinho. Frank Rijkaard, the coach, was agape. I asked him if he'd ever seen anything like it. "Nothing, not even at AC Milan," he told me. Nor will I forget Henry's first home match, in the Gamper tournament, when he looked askance at Andres Iniesta for a pass which would have required him to anticipate and to run instead of getting it to feet.
Right then, in front of a full house, mild-mannered Iniesta gave the Frenchman a verbal corrosion and pointed at the ball in a "go and get it then!" message which established for the Arsenal legend that this was going to be a new experience.
Henry admitted recently: "If you've not grown up in the Barca system, it's very hard to adapt to their identity. You have to unlearn whatever you have learned previously and ignore your own instincts. It's almost like getting used to a new sport. But when you have learned and when you see how well it works, it´s an amazing feeling."
Strong words; apply them to the Suarez situation if you don't mind. In Thierry Henry's first 26 Liga games for Barca, he scored seven times.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic breaks the pattern somewhat, scoring promptly and often as he did. But his adaptation, compared to Larsson, Henry and Villa, is a cautionary tale for Suarez.
The Swede thought that "the one was greater than the group." Barcelona's idiosyncratic play so disorientated him that he admitted something interesting before the end of his "one-hit-wonder" season. "By early March I was both confused and questioning myself. And for that reason I stopped making so many runs. I decided to just stop thinking about it."
Barca then decided to stop employing him.
David Villa arrived at FC Barcelona in the summer of 2010 a better, more complete, striker than Suarez ever has been or ever will be. A world champion and en route to becoming the Spanish national team's all-time leading scorer.
At Valencia he'd been master and commander like Larsson had been at Celtic, the kind of striker who made a run and if he didn't receive the ball there would be a stewards' enquiry. But while he often played exceptionally for his new club and scored some major goals, he found adaptation hard, often squeezed out of his preferred, stronger centre-forward position by Messi.
There were occasions when the two men both spoke and gesticulated angrily during matches as tension surged over who'd been better placed, whether the rules dictated that Messi get the ball whenever he called for it ... or merely when the pass was right.
Add that to the fact that Villa would peel off his marker and suffer the same fate as Larsson six years earlier -- Xavi, Iniesta or Sergio Busquets dictating that the rhythm section set the beat, not the lead guitar.
During his frustrating and injury-hit Camp Nou career, Villa admitted: "It's hard to adapt to the style at Barcelona because immediately you play with them you find out that these guys have a sixth gear -- one more than anyone else you'll play with. It was the fact that I'd been with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets for Spain which helped me understand and perform."
Villa scored just twice in his first seven league games for Barça - a Barça much more fluid, in-form and prolific in chance-creation than the one in which Suarez finds himself.
So, back to Suarez. Considering his underwhelming start, some things are his fault.
He shouldn't have bitten Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup. Had he not done so, he'd have moved to Barcelona without a ban preventing him from playing competitive football until late October.
He shouldn't still be a kilo, perhaps even two, overweight. For most normal men of his age and size, he's in great shape. But for a 28-year-old world-class striker who's attempting the most intense adaptation of his life, he should be lean like an Olympic athlete.
(I suspect that some who drooled over him last season have forgotten that his last transition, from Ajax to Liverpool, also cost him. Four in his first 13 Premier League games, then just five in his next 19 in the same competition.)
To be harsh, it's also his fault that he didn't use his weeks when he could only train, but not play, to better learn the remnants of the Barcelona "system." After all, this is not the Pep Guardiola era; Luis Enrique is gradually introducing his own modifications.
But the grand change is the decline in the system's efficacy, the positional play and the speed of ball-circulation. Not the basic philosophy. When the team effectively functions around how Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Dani Alves and Piqué play, there were things which Suarez might have learned and put into practice which would have made his 'fit' better. Especially were he fully fit.
It's also his fault that when he's been allowed to play in the No. 9 position of late, he receives the ball with his back to goal and is already almost three quarters of the way to the ground rather than being able to stay on his feet, shield it and either turn or lay it off.
What is definitively not his fault is that this is a team still in search of its full identity. Luis Enrique is not helping Luis Suarez. Twenty two different starting lineups in 22 competitive matches is a joke when new players like Jeremy Mathieu, Ivan Rakitic and Suarez are supposed to be fitting in. Particularly a striker who depends on instinctive, automatic understanding with those who'll supply him.
At the start of the season the new coach announced that Messi would be given "total liberty" to play where he wanted -- freedom to roam and invent like some Camp Nou Jack Kerouac. Largely, Messi has taken that to mean that he plays somewhere between the No. 9 and No. 10 position which is, at his most lethal, Suarez's best working area.
From both the right and the left, the Uruguayan has produced some absolutely marvellous assists. The one against PSG last week shimmers in beauty. To cushion-volley such a long, searching pass from Javier Mascherano and to see, out of the corner of his eye, that if he set the ball up in the channel between Salvatore Sirigu and David Luiz then Messi might get there, was utterly visionary.
But there's no debate about it. If Suarez is to score copious goals at the prolific rate of last season, he'll need to be given the opportunity to play centre-forward. Which would demand the coach instructing Messi that he had a specific position and specific duties.
Not going to happen, I don't think.
But beyond the steady flow of assists, the way in which Suarez's enthusiastic work has created space for teammates around him and the fact that he seems to be popular within the squad is what Messi thinks of him so far.
There was a moment a couple of weeks ago when, against Sevilla, the long-beckoning all-time La Liga scoring record was on the line. Messi had a chance to break Telmo Zarra's total by scoring the second goal of what would be a hat-trick.
There was a square ball across the Sevilla six-yard box which would certainly have got Suarez off the mark -- in the league, at the Camp Nou. Messi lunged in to make sure he broke the record; tough luck, Luis.
Not a hint of remorse. Survival of the fittest.
But when Suarez finished the nice team move that gave him his debut home goal last week in the Champions League against PSG, it was noticeable that when the chance beckoned Messi urgently got himself out of the way so that his strike partner would bury the chance.
An important gesture of support. It bodes well for the team, the coach... and for Suarez.
In the end, I think there's a useful analogy to explain what terms we should and shouldn't use to quantify "what Luis Suarez is for."
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- Laporta would scrap Qatar sponsorship deal
- Abidal lined up for Camp Nou return
- Tomas: Rakitic embraced his role and thrived
- Benedito: Barca won't pay €80 million for Pogba
- Spanish court to hear Neymar investor
I've mentioned her before but my economics teacher used to quiz each of her classes: "When Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Car company what was his company in business to do?"
The unwary always say "to make cars" while only the shrewd remember that it's "to make money." Use the same "trick" and ask "what is Luis Suarez for" and you'll get the "cars" answer in the form of "to score goals."
Wrong answer. It's to win trophies -- not something at which he's been prolific.
His 80-plus goals at Liverpool won him precisely one trophy: the League Cup on a penalty shootout in which he didn't even participate against Championship side Cardiff. If he scores a mere 20 goals for his new club this season instead of the 31 last term but wins the Copa del Rey or the Champions League, then he'll have served his real purpose.
Just like Henrik Larsson: only 13 goals, but two Spanish titles and the Champions League -- for Barcelona.
Or Thierry Henry: only an average of 16 goals per season in his three terms with Barcelona but seven trophies including two Spanish titles, a World Club championship and the Champions League.
And David Villa: 48 goals, but two Spanish titles, eight total trophies and a spectacular goal in that exceptional 2011 Champions League final win at Wembley.
Larsson, Henry and Villa -- the kind of slow-to-start no-goodniks that Suarez would do well to end up emulating.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.