What’s Wrong with Luis Suarez?

It’s not secret that Luis Suarez has been a disappointment to start the year. There have been reports of Suarez playing through injury, which has only fueled speculation of his decline. Explanations range from injury to age to confidence, but all of them indicate there’s a non-football factor influencing his footballing performance. These speculations have led to a bevy of articles and graphics trying to show how his injury has impacted his performance – like this one from Marca, indicating Suarez is getting caught offside more often.

The explanation, in this scenario, is essentially that as Suarez declines (be it from age or injury), he’s gotten slower – and thus has to push his boundaries further to try and find an advantage. This isn’t really the case, however, as Suarez has always been caught offside more than most. He led his league in the 2013/14, 2015/16, and 2016/17 seasons, and was top five in both 2012/13 and 2014/15 (despite missing a few months due to his lengthy ban). In fact, there’s not even a huge deviation from his previous averages while at Barcelona.

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There is a slight increase in the number of times he’s been caught offside, but it’s largely the same as previous seasons. There seems to be more emphasis on the number of times he’s been caught offside due to the lack of production. When you test the backline, as Suarez does, there’s higher levels of risk with higher levels of potential reward. If he gets caught, his team loses the ball – which puts his team in a less than ideal position. However, if the timing is right, Suarez is through one-on-one with the keeper – often able to take close shots at his own pace with no one else around. This leads to great goal scoring opportunities, which – more often than not – produce goals. Now that the production is drying up, there’s more emphasis on the risk he’s taking.

There seems to be a more logical explanation to his decline, though. One that strays from speculation and gets to a more concrete reason why the production – and overall play – has started to dry up. Suarez has started taking lower quality shots – specifically from outside the box – and that’s led to a decline his goals per shot.

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This isn’t to say this is the definitive answer. In all likelihood, there’s more to the decline that simple shot selection. That said, you can explain a decent portion of the decline with his shot portfolio. As Ted Knutson explains, “In attack, we want to create the largest volume of high xG shots possible. You can do this in various ways, but it boils down to creating shots from as close a range as possible, and mostly from central areas.” Michael Caley also showed this in his piece explaining his expected goals model. The “optimal” shot from outside the box has roughly a 9% chance of scoring. Even moving just five yards further in nearly doubles the odds of a shot scoring.

Again, this isn’t to say that all of Suarez’s problems are down to shot selection. Even if he were taking more efficient shots, he’s still finishing well below his career average in every area.

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With that said, you can still expect improved performances. It’s unlikely that he continues finishing at below average rates. Even excluding talent, team, and opposition, you’d expect Suarez’s numbers to regress towards the mean – indicating he’ll get better. However, even if we assume Suarez doesn’t return to his better than average finishing, and we assume he doesn’t regress to the mean (i.e. xG), he’s still taking shots that he’s scoring at a higher rate. Just by taking shots in similar ratios to his previous years at Barcelona, he could expect to add 1-2 goals. That may not sound like much, but it takes him from a below average conversation rate to an average conversion rate – and provides more threat to alleviate pressure from Messi.

On that subject, we get to another area that Suarez has taken a huge step backward in his production. He’s all but stopped creating chances for teammates, preferring to take more shots, instead.

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In years past, Suarez was taking about two shots for every shot he created for a teammate (i.e. key pass). This helped ensure that even if he wasn’t finding the back of the net, he was helping someone else do so – which is always a good idea when you’re paired with Lionel Messi. This year, he’s shooting four times as much as he’s passing. This not only hurts goal production in the sense that he’s struggling to find the back of the net, but it’s also forcing Messi to play a more isolated game. By opting to shoot less and pass more, Suarez could help put the one of the best goal scorers in the history of the game in better positions to score – which is bound to help Barcelona.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that Suarez isn’t injured or declining. All of that is speculation, and no one but Suarez himself is truly going to know what’s going on with him. This is just to say that even with his current situation (be it injury, age, confidence, a combination of them all, or none of the above) there are ways that Suarez could improve his performances and put his team in better positions to win.

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