Belfast Telegraph

Awful conversion rate means Suarez must go to finishing school

By Ian Herbert

The problem with making a saint of someone is that it can be hard to accept he might be a sinner, too. Somewhere beyond the martyrdom which has engulfed Luis Suarez, there must be space for him to be assessed for what he is – a supremely gifted player with a heart of darkness – without that being read as an accusation that he is predisposed to racial prejudice.

When the dust had settled on another cold, goalless night on Monday with Suarez crackling at its centre, Kenny Dalglish was left to reflect yesterday on the hard fact that, for all the anticipation and excitement which has come to surround the current holder of Anfield's iconic No 7 jersey, he is a player with a painfully poor chance-conversion rate – to quote the statistical reference point which Liverpool are dragging around the Premier League with them. There have been a staggering 76 attempts on goal from him this season, of which he has put away only five: at a 6.6 per cent success rate, he actually trails Andy Carroll.

It is not Suarez's fault that he carves out so many chances and his ability to do so is part of the quality best defined by the Wolves manager, Mick McCarthy, earlier this season. "He never does what you expect him to," McCarthy said. "You think he is going to pull the trigger, then he cuts it back. You think he is going to come short and he cuts in behind you. He is something else." Yet it is hard to avoid the sense that now, with the controversy over his ban behind him, he needs a calm space to construct the kind of scoring record – 81 goals in 110 Eredivisie games – which left Ajax resigned to his departure months before he left for Merseyside. Liverpool fans sing that they "just can't get enough" of Suarez but when he plopped a comfortable header into Brad Friedel's arms in the dying seconds of the goalless draw with Tottenham Hotspur on Monday, you felt that less mental energy might have meant more football focus.

"He has had a long break now and, hopefully, he will be fresh and ready to put in a performance [at Old Trafford next weekend," his team-mate Glen Johnson said of Suarez yesterday, though in Dalglish's scrutiny of Monday night's match DVD, there was much evidence that Suarez will not discover goals through his own endeavour alone.

Suarez had been on the field for less than a minute on Monday before he and Steven Gerrard linked in a way which was treacherous to Tottenham's Benoît Assou-Ekotto and it was also Gerrard who dished up the header with which he ought to have prevented his side's eighth home draw in 12 ("when you hear stats like that it doesn't sound good at all," Johnson admitted).

It was when Gerrard disappeared into his long struggle with groin trouble, a few years back, that Fernando Torres entered into the lonely, barren place which he has not vacated at Stamford Bridge, and amid the understandable anticipation of how Suarez and Carroll – Liverpool's two most expensive signings – might combine, it has rather been forgotten the really significant axis is Gerrard/Suarez. It is the combination in which many of the most astute observers you find around Anfield, John Aldridge and Tommy Smith among them, see nascent echoes of Keegan and Toshack: not the kind of label which is applied lightly around here. "I am about to pay Luis Suarez a major compliment..." ventured Aldridge, before discussing him as a prospective Keegan. Gerrard and Suarez have been on the field of play together for only 248 minutes in the Premier League this season – fewer than three full games.

Dalglish has a part to play, too. His indefatigable support throughout the race case has undoubtedly created a bond which will be needed if Suarez is not afforded the chance to parade his skills on Europe's highest stage next season, but now there is a requirement to cease the noise which has sounded since the names Suarez and Evra became so inextricably bound up – and to be still. Every new protestation of innocence stirs the matter up.

Perhaps Dalglish is aware of how Suarez's days at Ajax ended after he had bitten PSV Eindhoven's defender Otman Bakkal on the shoulder, in November 2010.

His manager, Martin Jol, made a dreadful attempt to cover the incident with humour ("maybe he was hungry...") but the near universal dismay felt by a Dutch nation, for whom Ajax are a virtual extension of the Dutch national team, created an immediate sense that this incident, which brought a seven-game ban, was his point of no return in the country. Ajax were too preoccupied with a dreadful run of league form to expend the same energy on him that Liverpool have.

But if Dalglish has examined Suarez's Ajax days, he will also have learnt how Jol got perhaps more out of him than any other manager. When Jol took over from Marco van Basten, virtually his first decision was to make Suarez his captain, to the Uruguayan's own surprise. The result was an extraordinary spree in Jol's first half-season at the helm which began to take his goalscoring ratio – 111 in three and a half seasons by the end – through the roof. "Martin made me a better player," Suarez later reflected. "He made me feel important."

The lesson being that Suarez needs to be loved but he needs also to be managed. It was when he felt responsibility becoming a burden, as Ajax proved themselves a selling club and began to fall apart, that his frustrations grew visceral and he left.

Liverpool are already thinking of Old Trafford in three days' time. "It is a tough place to go to, Old Trafford, and Luis is a strong character and he will try to let his football do the talking," Johnson concluded. But it is a conversation that Suarez requires with those around him, and a more grown-up one at that.

Belfast Telegraph


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