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FC Barcelona reunion: How Luis Suarez fits with Messi in Inter Miami’s lineup

After a false start this summer, Luis Suarez is officially an Inter Miami player. The Uruguayan has signed a one-year contract with Inter Miami, which will reunite him with three of his former FC Barcelona teammates – Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba – with whom he shared some of his most prolific years, scoring nearly 200 goals from 2014-2020 at the La Liga club.

When his career is over, the 36-year-old will be remembered as one of the best center forwards in modern football history. He has understandably slowed down with age, but Suarez’s most recent stint with Brazilian side Gremio proved he is still a difference-maker and a legitimate goal-scoring threat.

Now the question is whether Suarez will perform in MLS and how Inter Miami manager Tata Martino can maximize his skill set. With Gremio, Suarez showed that he’s still an elite finisher whose opportunistic nature and calculated runs dumbfounded defenders.

Despite a chronic right knee problem, which Suarez revealed requires painkillers and injections before his matches, he scored 27 goals and had 17 assists for Gremio in 2023. He appeared in 53 matches and played in three different tournaments this past season. He also won the Brasileirão golden ball as the competition’s best player.

Suarez was revered in Brazil during his short stint, and his competitive spirit was celebrated.

“It’s difficult for rival fans here to applaud you when you play, and that happened to me in some places,” he said in his Gremio farewell speech. “It’s all about the player’s mind. It doesn’t matter how old they are. It could be Endrick at age 17 or Hulk or Suarez. The mindset and the commitment have to be there for you to play and do what you enjoy.”



‘Like watching an alien play with humans’ – Luis Suarez’s year in Brazil with Gremio

Watching Suarez’s 27 goals in 2023 is like watching a greatest hits video of his trademark finishes. There were deft chips over helpless goalkeepers and razor-sharp finishes from inside the penalty area.

The way that Suarez positions his body, specifically his backside, has long been one of his signature strengths and is still a very effective way to turn on a defender and shoot on goal. These days, he makes up for his lack of a quick burst with keen field awareness. With Gremio, Suarez proved agile enough to twist by defenders or skip past an overzealous center back before picking out a corner with an accurate finish.

It’s proven to be an effective style for veteran center forwards in MLS before. Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived at the LA Galaxy far past his physical peak and just coming off knee surgery, but still scored 52 goals in 56 appearances thanks largely to smart physical positioning and creative finishing instincts in front of goal.

Clever flicks, memorable hat-tricks, vicious strikes from beyond 18 yards, glancing headers and volleys were all part of Suarez’s Gremio highlight reel. His goal on May 17 in a 1-1 draw against Cruzeiro in the Copa Brasil, a calculated outside-the-foot sizzler from distance, epitomized Suarez’s brash style.

He was most effective in the attacking half spaces, but Suarez still chased down the occasional long ball and finished his breakaways with ease.

His head-down, chaotic dribbling style remains from his younger years, but in a different form. It was common to see Suarez’s sprint at a back line from midfield when he played for Liverpool and FC Barcelona. Those actions now take place much closer to his opponent’s penalty area. Regardless, his intentioned runs are what makes Suarez a tough mark for defenders.

Gremio’s fullbacks and wide players learned quickly how to play with Suarez. They seemed to always know where the Uruguayan was, making it a point to target him during the run of play. A slipped-in pass at the near post, where Suarez could finish first time with his weaker left foot, was a common sequence during his time in Porto Alegre. His 70th-minute winner versus Bahía on Nov. 4, a left-footed strike that pierced the far post’s side netting, is a perfect example.

Inter Miami is already ahead of any presumed learning curve with the addition of Suarez, considering the striker knows Messi, Alba and Busquets so well. They remain close friends after winning 13 trophies together at Barcelona, including three La Liga titles and three Copas del Rey.

Martino will not have to give his four veteran starters too much instruction. With Alba playing as an attacking fullback, Miami’s left side could be where Suarez receives the most effective service. “Alba to Suarez” or “Messi to Suarez” is something broadcasters will say often next season if all goes to plan. Miami’s right flank needs an upgrade, though. U.S. international DeAndre Yedlin’s strengths are not suited for the attacking third. His service and decision-making around the box leave much to be desired.

That’s what makes The Athletic’s report about Inter Miami targeting Columbus Crew winger Julian Gressel so intriguing. Martino and Gressel won an MLS Cup together with Atlanta United in 2018. Gressel finished with 35 regular-season assists in three years with Atlanta. He formed a prolific partnership with Venezuelan striker Josef Martínez, who will not return to Inter Miami in 2024. However, Gressel’s accuracy from wide areas remains among the best in MLS.

But Suarez doesn’t crash the goal anymore. If he’s not creating a goal for himself, Suarez expects the ball on his foot or directly in his path for a tidy finish. This will put the onus on Inter Miami’s players to recognize Suarez’s runs, understand his limitations and provide accurate passes if he’s to be successful next season. Suarez will replace Martínez and likely step ahead of Ecuadorian No. 9 Leonardo Campana, leaving Suarez and Messi to start up top in Martino’s 5-3-2 formation — a system he began to use consistently towards the end of 2023.

At Gremio, the team pressed high under manager Renato Portaluppi, who preferred a 4-3-3 formation. His midfielders and wide players pinned their opponents back and forced turnovers in dangerous areas. Suarez was always there to pick up the scraps and finish effectively. Martino may opt for a more pragmatic approach, seeing as he won’t want Messi and Suarez to waste their energy in a high-pressing system. Suarez will have to perform in a more controlled, possession-based style of play. Similarly, how much Suarez plays next season will determine how successful he’ll be in MLS. His knee pain forced him to routinely miss training sessions and the occasional match day with Gremio.

That scenario will carry over in 2024. Inter Miami plays a 34-game regular season next year, plus CONCACAF Champions Cup, Leagues Cup, and potentially U.S. Open Cup if MLS teams return to the fold. If Inter Miami advances in all these competitions as they will be expected to, they could play close to 60 games in 2024, potentially eclipsing the record for most games played in a calendar year by an MLS team set by LAFC in 2023.

Both Messi and Suarez will need to rest, but Suarez in particular will require specialized attention from Miami’s medical staff. The number of games and the travel between them that MLS teams endure will be a culture shock for Suarez. That’ll open the door for Campana — who signed a contract extension with Inter Miami through 2027 — to make Martino’s decision-making process a bit harder.

Suarez will score goals in double digits in MLS if he can replicate his form with Gremio. There are hardened, skilled defenders in the Brazilian first division, but overall, the league isn’t known for its defensive prowess.

The same can be said for MLS. It’s a competition where skilled attackers find plenty of space and opportunities in front of the goal. If that holds for Suarez, his brief stay in the United States will become another memorable milestone in his esteemed career.



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(Photo: Getty Images)

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