With 9-mintues to go before full-time he trudged off the Anfield turf, looking forlorn. He couldn’t believe his number – the iconic number-7 – was being held aloft again, calling an early end to his game. A clap of appreciation towards the Kop was accompanied by a mutter as he headed towards his replacement on the side-line. A handshake and a quick hug was afforded the club captain, but not the man who’s decision it was to withdraw him from the fray with Liverpool 2-1 up, but far from convincing. There was no hiding Luis Suarez’s displeasure as he passed Kenny Dalglish without making eye contact, head still shaking before taking his frustration out on a water bottle, then slouching down in his seat on the bench. He had scored the winner, but there was also disappointment.
Unlike other media outlets, I am not suggesting for one second that Suarez is unhappy with life at Anfield, or that this act of histrionics imply something similar – I’ll leave that to the trouble-causing tabloids and the likes of Talk Sport. This is about whether it is correct for the manager to take what seems to be an over-protective approach of a player who has been Liverpool’s best performer and most dangerous player since joining the club in January.
Of the eight league and cup games Liverpool have played so far this season, Suarez has started all bar one (away to Arsenal). However, he has completed 90-minutes just once. Indeed, his 81st minute showing versus Wolves on Saturday represented his longest period on the pitch this season, normally being ‘given a rest’ from around the 60th-75th minute. It’s no wonder his frustration is beginning to show. If his performance levels were well below par, then this would be a mute point, and the player could have little to complain about. But his form this season has drawn rave reviews and is of a consistently high-level – especially when compared to certain other players on the pitch, who are nowhere near the Uruguayan’s level, performance or effort-wise.
Far from appearing to be a prima donna, what adds to this is his burning desire to play the game and improve the clubs level. Uruguayan’s are renowned for their courage, and never-say-die attitude – an unquenchable will to win. Marrying this ferocious work-ethic to his sublime technical ability equates to being the oppositions worst nightmare – they are relieved to see the back of him, whilst he wants to play every minute. His own ‘tweet’ after the game stating: ‘I felt really sad and sorry because I always want to help my team to win the match!! Thanks for your support!’ and the man who made the decision to replace him, Kenny Dalglish also admitting as much: ‘He wants to be involved all the time. He wants to play for as many minutes as he can and he wants to score. The fans take to him because he is so genuine and 100 per cent committed’.
So is Dalglish right to protect him? Let us not forget, Liverpool’s ‘star’ players of recent years have been dogged by consistent injury problems. Indeed, Suarez was replaced by one, as Steven Gerrard made his latest return from injury. The man Suarez himself replaced at Anfield, Fernando Torres, was also no stranger to the treatment table, and without him in the side (before his last season) Liverpool struggled. Is Dalglish just ensuring the same mistakes are not made with Liverpool’s latest diamond? Lest we forget, Suarez is also coming into this season without a full break in two years. His summer of 2010 was taken up by the World Cup, whilst last summer he helped fire Uruguay to victory in the Copa America. The fear of his early burn-out must weigh heavily on Liverpool’s coaching staff. If Suarez was to suffer injury which could be avoided (Liverpool now have more quality cover upfront) then Dalglish would be held accountable.
A similar parallel is running down at Tottenham Hotspur. The enigmatic Rafael van der Vaart is also a player who’s found himself making-way more often than not, before 90-minutes is up. It has led to speculation that he is unhappy with the managers handling of his career, even though the player has a poor injury record and consistency issues. The Dutchman has even been quoted by a colleague inferring that he has a contract ‘which states that you are only allowed to play 70 minutes in each match’, a clear dig at Harry Redknapp’s substitution policy.
So, do fans think managers are right to ‘protect’ their better players in fear of burn-out or injury? Or is it simply over-protection, and these players should be left on the pitch whilst fit and performing, to cause as much havoc as possible?
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