It must be great to be 'the man'—to be the player who conducts his team's fortunes, who can win games that are lost, and with a swish of his boot turn a frustrated crowd into a feverish one.
We all know Luis Suarez was 'the man' for Liverpool last season, and with every game that passes since his departure we're learning just how acutely they miss his influence. How could you not, when you consider Suarez is a prolific contributor of just about every attribute you'd want from a forward leading your line?
It's not just about the 31 goals and 12 assists he delivered Liverpool in the Premier League last season. It's not just about his decisive distribution either, which saw Suarez bettered only by David Silva in the average accurate through-balls category (as per whoscored), and in the top five for average key passes—bracketing him with the elite midfield creators who play in the hole behind him.
Liverpool are not just missing Suarez's attacking thrust, penetration and shape-shifting abilities in the penalty area. They are also badly missing his defensive efforts, in both his capacity as a frantic harrier of those in possession, and as a fiercely committed tracker back of those who dare threaten Liverpool's goal. They talk about 360-degree contracts in music these days; Suarez is a 360-degree striker.
It's easy to blame Liverpool's scattered midfield for elements of their capitulation to West Ham, but it's worth bearing in mind how much extra work they now bear with Mario Balotelli taking on the duties so willingly performed by Suarez last season.
Balotelli has his merits, and he's never pretended to be anything other than the swaggering hitman he is, but in essence Liverpool sacrifice a defender with him on the field. Without Suarez, they've also lost a metronome for their defensive rhythm—the player who reliably set the tone for those behind him.
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"With him (Suarez) gone they have lost an intensity," said Danny Murphy earlier this week. "Defensively is where I have seen the biggest change, because Balotelli does not really want to do the work. He is a different sort of player. Talented, but with a different mentality. Suarez is like a Duracell bunny, he does not stop."
Jamie Carragher summed things up nicely when he tweeted: "After losing Suarez Lfc were never going to score 100+ goals this season so had to be better defensively, they actually look worse now."
Were we really to expect anything other than a Liverpool lull in the wake of Suarez's exit? They were, after all, saying goodbye to the biggest reason for their recent renaissance. There are some players you can't just replace in one window.
Rodgers losing Suarez, from a pure footballing standpoint at least, was easily the worst thing that could have happened to his squad this summer. It took away the most potent catalyst for Liverpool's success, and left Rodgers scrambling for the next best alternative in a market where world-class strikers were in extremely short supply.
Might we argue losing Suarez is about the worst thing that could happen to any team, in any league, in the world?
The Uruguayan might not carry the same transfer value as Cristiano Ronaldo, or Lionel Messi, but there's an argument Real Madrid and Barcelona might have coped better with their respective exits than Liverpool are without Suarez this season. Gareth Bale and Neymar aren't bad options as understudies after all. And Ronaldo and Messi don't contribute to the defensive efforts of their teams as Suarez did for Liverpool.
Of course they'd lose goals. As Carragher pointed out, Liverpool were always going to be less prolific without Suarez this season, but that doesn't mean you have to pick up less points. You focus on playing a tighter style and on redefining the way you win games.
As an example, Atletico Madrid won the title the season after they sold Radamel Falcao, their top scorer, to Monaco. Fortunately they had Diego Costa to pick up his assassin duties and the transition was seamless.
How Liverpool fans wish they could have turned to Costa themselves this season, or Falcao for that matter, or Robert Lewandowski. But in truth none of those players would have matched Suarez's defensive output. There might not be another player in the game who can do that, while still scoring at the rate Suarez did for Liverpool.
The task for Balotelli now is to build a new discipline into his game. Rodgers will have demanded that from the Italian, and the coming months will show us if the eccentric forward has the requisite maturity to better himself for the good of his new team. Without improvement to his all-round game, and barring a goal glut, Balotelli's place in the starting XI may soon come under threat.
Fabio Borini was stubborn enough to stick it out at Liverpool, and there are already those arguing that his application alone is worth of an opportunity on Rodgers' watch. If you're not scoring goals, at least look busy, being the message here.
Rickie Lambert, meanwhile, is already serving a predictable purpose. He'll trot on for 20 minutes in Premier League games from here to the end of May, and toil valiantly in the shirt he loves above all others. He'll start some cup games, and he'll score some goals. But he was never bought with a view to compensating the void left by Suarez.
That responsibility falls first, fairly or not, on the shoulders of Balotelli and Daniel Sturridge—the latter being currently on the injured list at Anfield. And it couldn't be a more daunting one.
It's great being "the man". It's not so great following "the man".
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