Do you know what’s going on at Camp Nou? Because I’m not sure they do.
Since eventual winners Bayern Munich obliterated Barcelona in the Champions League just over a week ago, the Catalan club has plunged even deeper into disorder. It is the culmination of a process that took root in 2015, when the club was barred from making transfers after winning the European Cup — which did not stop it from spending nearly €40 million to sign future flop Arda Turan from Atlético Madrid.
Josep Maria Bartomeu’s Barcelona have spent an eye-watering €1.1 billion on new signings over the past five years — roughly 40 percent of it on Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann. Aside from the more-pragmatic and nearly-unbeaten 2017/18 squad, Barça as a team has been in decline for some time. This can best be seen in the team’s last four Champions League exits. “Rome” and “Anfield” are curse words in Catalonia.
After Bartomeu this week declared Barcelona would undergo a first-team overhaul, he green-lit another new managerial hire — the club’s seventh since Christmas 2011 — in Ronald Koeman. The Dutchman has not received assurances that Lionel Messi will stay amid what is shaping up to be quite the clear-out. Other longtime, handsomely-paid blaugrana will try to be shown the door whether they like it or not.
Seeing as Barcelona have zero leverage to extract any kind of large fee for their older stars, deals will be there for interested parties. Atlético should be an interested party. And Los Colchoneros should be most interested in Luis Suárez, who — though older and creakier — is still quite a productive player.
It is clear that Diego Simeone wants to have a veteran forward available at all times, for better or worse. Atlético tried to reel in Edinson Cavani last winter, but it appears that that trail has gone cold at last, if the aftermath of the failed pursuit is any indication. The need for Cavani — counterbalanced by the player’s excessive cost — was exacerbated due to Diego Costa’s failures up front. Though Costa’s form was encouraging over the final 11 weeks of domestic play, the 31-year-old disappeared against RB Leipzig in the Champions League as Atleti crashed out. Yet, Simeone has counted on him, believing his experience and spirit are crucial to wins. Ten goals and nine assists across Costa’s past 3,500 minutes in LaLiga say otherwise.
Luis Suárez has slowed down visibly over the past two seasons as nearly 15 years in European football have taken their toll. Not counting Barcelona’s doomed quarterfinal in Lisbon (more of a neutral-venue contest), Suárez hasn’t scored away from Camp Nou in the Champions League since Sept. 16, 2015 — a statistic often trumpeted as total, unequivocal evidence that he is over the hill.
But even in this diminished state, Suárez’s production outpaces any of Simeone’s attackers. The 33-year-old missed five months due to knee surgery in 2019/20 and still scored 16 league goals, five after he returned to action in June. Álvaro Morata’s 16 goals *in all competitions* were the highest tally any colchonero mustered in 2019/20. Nearly 54 percent of Suárez’s shot attempts last season were on target — none of Morata, Costa, João Félix or Ángel Correa topped 42 percent. And while it helps to play with Messi, the Uruguay star’s 32 total goal contributions across all competitions blew Morata’s team-high total of 20 out of the water.
In order for it to be successful, Simeone’s rigid attacking structure requires a forward who creates for others as effectively as he creates for himself. This is how Griezmann and Costa (in his first stint) became superstars while wearing red and white. Last season, Suárez still contributed 0.76 non-penalty expected goals and assists per 90 minutes in LaLiga — roughly one or the other every game. Morata’s 0.62 mark led Atlético. Félix barely cracked 0.5 npxG+xA.
Despite his age and his lingering knee problems, we know everything a complete striker like Suárez can do — particularly as we have watched him rip apart LaLiga for the past six years. But the pathway to a deal is complicated, even as his current club lacks leverage in transfer negotiations.
For one, Atlético and Barcelona’s relationship deteriorated following last summer’s Griezmann debacle. Suárez doesn’t want to leave. Really. He rakes in around €20 million gross per year, more than double Jan Oblak’s salary (and half Simeone’s salary). Atleti would have to sell Costa and/or Correa to finance the deal, and the former’s own high wages make him difficult to move.
That said, Barça could still force out Suárez, and the player certainly knows he will have to take a pay cut at his next destination. There is a market still for the mercurial Correa, and Atlético will have to swallow its pride (and accept its coach’s inevitable protests) in order to get Costa off the books.
There is precedent for this kind of deal, though. On July 8, 2013, Atleti signed an unwanted, 31-year-old David Villa from Barcelona for just €5.1 million. Talk about a bargain. Villa’s stunning signing keyed Los Rojiblancos’ even more stunning league title win before he jetted off for New York City FC.
Imagine signing Suárez to what would amount to a one-year deal before a sexier move to Major League Soccer emerges. Imagine inserting someone with his trademark aggression and attitude into a regenerating squad, someone who could truly fill a void not filled since Raúl García’s departure. (Though Rulo never had to bite anybody.)
Even at 33 and a cut-rate price, Suárez still can change a team’s attacking outlook, if only for a single season. And, transitional year or otherwise, an Atlético team that scratched across 68 goals from 50 games in the 2019/20 campaign needs a new outlook.