It all comes down to choices in the end.
Alexis Sánchez admitted to me the last time I interviewed him that his decision making when on the ball was still the part of his game which he most needed to improve.
Luis Suárez needs to choose to stop biting people. Or abusing them racially.
If each can fine-tune the synapses which have led them down the wrong road in the past then spectacular new chapters await them.
I’ve nailed my colours to the mast about each man in the past but, for those who have renewed interest because Alexis is now a Gooner and Suárez (above) with Barça.
There has been a tidal wave of appreciation for the Chilean since he scored that howitzer of a goal on the last day of the Spanish season – one which both looked improbable and, briefly, like it would Barcelona the title.
Alexis had a powerful World Cup, one which has naturally raised appreciation and expectation, but via performances which aren’t archetypical of his time at Barcelona.
What links him and Suárez, one of few things I think, is his infernal work attitude.
Playing against him can be a nightmare. In terms of his determination to press and win back possession you could compare him to an energetic puppy chasing a tennis ball. Non-stop, determined, agile, rapid – often successful in his task.
Even though he’s wealthy now (he funnels a lot of money back into helping the Tocopilla community in which he grew up) Sanchez (above) admitted to me there were times when the family had to choose between buying food or either boots or a football for him.
Times were hard and he’s never lost that drive to succeed. He’d tell his mum that he was going to be a world-famous footballer and that he’d earn enough money for her to never have to work again and she’d laugh. And indulge him. And now look at him.
That same abundance of pace and energy lets him ‘show’ for run after run which will allow the passers in Arsenal’s midfield, Ramsey, Wilshire and Özil in particular, many more options about what to dow the ball in the two or three seconds after they receive it.
Some of his goals, notably that one against Atlético Madrid or the winner in last season’s Camp Nou Clásico, when he chipped Diego López after running from midfield, indicate that he’s got some truly spectacular finishes in his locker.
Yet while I’ve no wish to pour cold water on the bubbling excitement of Arsenal fans who presumably feel that Alexis could be a key element in finally winning the Premier League again, this is an incomplete player.
The Alexis who scored at Wembley to defeat England, who led Chile’s fightback against Brazil at the World Cup – this is not the identical forward who’s been at the Camp Nou for the last three years.
For Chile he was a leader…
When he arrived he was daunted by the big club atmosphere, by playing with Messi, by the insane media attention which Barcelona generates.
His play showed it. He’d score unfeasibly difficult goals and miss unfeasible numbers of run-of-the-mill chances.
He’d have a game where his understanding with Cesc would look like some form of footballing E.S.P and many more when he’d make wrong choices, go down blind alleys – allow energy to get the better of intelligence.
For Chile he’s a leader up front – his decisions take precedence over those around him, his runs are fed with passes, he’s the lone wolf. That suits him.
For Barcelona, less so…
At Barcelona Alexis constantly wrestled with the concept of whether he was supposed to be a lead actor pushing for the Oscar or simply the ‘best supporting’ guy. In each of his seasons he could, and should, have had nine or ten more goals and I have always believed that with the rise in importance of Alexis at Barcelona their absolute cutting edge in the biggest of games (Stamford Bridge in 2012 would be an example) has decreased.
My hope is that this World Cup, increasing personal and football maturity, plus the range of terrific passers around him paves the way for Arsenal fans to enjoy Alexis more than I’ve enjoyed him while playing in La Liga.
Suarez is a different beast…
Suárez is obviously different. His ruthlessness is patently a stand-out characteristic – constantly battling with his technique and football intelligence for pre-eminence in that strangely-wired brain of his.
His footballing fit at Barcelona is, you’d say, still clearer than that of Alexis at Arsenal.
Suárez brings precisely the intensity, the will-to-win which Pep Guardiola saw waning as far back as spring 2012 when he chose to leave.
The Uruguayan’s goal record doesn’t stand comparison with that of Messi, he’s no more skilled than Messi, Iniesta, Xavi or Neymar for example – but he brings a ferocity, an all-out dedication to winning every ball, ever match, every trophy which seems unabated.
Carlo deals with talent ‘overload’
Over the last three years he’s won two trophies, the League Cup and the Copa America, and this isn’t commensurate either with his ability or with the lava-hot moment of form which he’s in.
This is, principally, what Barcelona have bought. Right now the Catalan media is toeing the party lines.
They are whipping up support for the idea that Suárez’s ban is unfair, they are playing on the fact that Barcelona fans love to see players who will sweat blood for the jersey – there’s next to no questioning about whether this man’s behaviour over the last few years merits this club investing so much money in him.
Coincidentally, it’s probably Real Madrid who have done most to show that the problem of fitting an ‘overload’ of talent into an already star-laden team can be dealt with.
Carlo Ancelotti didn’t have a voice in the signing of Gareth Bale and tinkered with formations for weeks and weeks before finally moving Ángel Di Maria back to midfield and using Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo in a front three for much of the rest of the season while Madrid won the Copa Del Rey and Champions League.
It won’t necessarily be simple to fit Leo Messi, Neymar and Suárez together – but there are ways. Messi, for example, could easily play at no10 in a 4-2-3-1 which, hypothetically, could look like Bravo: Alves, Piqué, Bartra, Alba; Mascherano, Busquets; Iniesta, Messi, Neymar; Suárez.
How will Barcelona play with Suarez?
Perhaps Luis Enrique will simply ask Messi and Neymar to play wide right and left with Suárez down the middle – he’s got the cojones to front up to his super-star players and tell them the ‘way it’s going to be’.
But enforcing it and making it succeed are two different things.
Quite how Barcelona have gone from a club trying to breath real life into its motto ‘Més que un Club’ and fielding teams which were largely home grown, unified in ethos and exemplified by the behaviour of Carles Puyol when he insisted that his cancer-surviving team mate Eric Abidal raise the Champions League trophy in his place to hiring a serial biter is a little depressing.
But once Suárez serves his ban it’s time for a new leaf and a new start.
Then, in light of the decisions Alexis and Suárez begin to make on and off the pitch, it’ll be clearer where the winners and losers in these deals, from Barcelona, Liverpool, Arsenal, La Liga and the Premier League may be.
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