20th September 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
Denis Suárez is a confident and ambitious young man. He returned to Barcelona last summer having left the Catalan giants’ B team in 2014 – first on loan to Sevilla, then permanently to Villarreal – in search of regular first-team football.
A full international with Spain, the young midfielder impressed with the Yellow Submarine, convincing Barça to exercise their buyback option on the player, re-signing him for just €3.5million. Suárez didn’t go back to the Camp Nou to merely make up the numbers, however; he returned because he believed he could fight his way into the starting XI and stay there.
“I left always having the idea of returning,” Suárez said upon being unveiled as a Barcelona player for the second time.
“I am fulfilling a dream — to play for the best team in the world, which is Barça. I will give everything for this team. I want to thank the president, the board, and Robert [Fernández, the club’s sporting director], for having faith in me.
“Barça play in many competitions. There will be playing time for everyone and you have to earn that. I am coming to Barça hoping to play as much as possible and to be a success.”
However, more than a year on, the Galician has not yet nailed down a regular starting berth at the Camp Nou, but it’s time he was given the chance to.
When Ernesto Valverde’s side were struggling away to Getafe in the fourth round of La Liga fixtures, their 100 per cent start to the 2017/18 La Liga season in jeopardy and record signing Ousmane Dembélé forced off with a hamstring injury, it was Suárez who came on at half-time to reverse their fortunes.
The 23-year-old midfielder, replacing club legend Andrés Iniesta, scored with a wonderful, swept finish into the top corner from 15 yards to pull the Blaugrana level, setting up a nail-biting climax which saw former Tottenham Hotspur washout Paulinho fire home a late winner with his first strike for his new club.
After the game, Suárez bullishly called for Barcelona’s squad players, himself included, to be given more credit. “The fringe players have been criticised,” he said. “But today we have been able to show our quality.”
He also made no bones of pointing out where he should be playing within the team, even if that means edging out the club captain. “The place where Iniesta plays is my best position on the pitch, I’ve always said this,” he told reporters.
Suárez’s reward was to feature from the start in Barça’s subsequent outing – a 6-1 trouncing of Eibar in which he scored – not in place of Iniesta, but rather in place of Luis Suárez, with Valverde electing to withdraw the Uruguayan striker who has been struggling to recapture form and fitness after a minor injury
The former Manchester City academy standout’s run in the first XI shouldn’t end there, though. He is versatile and adaptable, capable of playing in one of the wide attacking positions if required, with evidence of his suitability for such a role coming from appearances on the flank with Villarreal. He is strong, fast and a fine dribbler, so a position on the wing would be no great ask of him.
But Suárez is right to be pushing for regular minutes in midfield, as Barça’s left-sided interior. Iniesta is one of the greats of the game, a World Cup winner with Spain and a crucial cog in all of Barcelona’s modern success. But, at 33, he is no longer able to cope with the demands of starting two games a week at the highest level, and there have been occasions recently where he has been found off the pace, a step behind play where he was once two ahead.
Iniesta, of course, still has a role to play at the club, and there is a hope he will stay at the Camp Nou beyond this season, although he is yet to commit to renewing terms which expire in the summer. But the veteran No.8 has reached an inevitable point of decline, and that decline must be managed carefully if Barcelona are to squeeze the last drops of his wisdom and brilliance, while also preparing for his succession.
Suárez might not be the man to step into Iniesta’s shoes long-term, but he has earned the chance, through patience and dependability, to stake his claim. Part of his issue has been that he re-joined Barcelona in the same summer they forked out a fee which could rise to as much as €55million to sign André Gomes from Valencia.
There is no question that Suárez has outperformed the Portuguese, but, having invested so much in Gomes, there is a feeling – an obligation, almost – to persist with the former Benfica player, while there is no such necessity with a man who cost a relative pittance.
Gomes started 17 La Liga games last term, despite consistently sub-par performances; Suarez made then-manager Luis Enrique’s staring XI just 12 times.
The presence of Gomes has been an obstacle to overcome for Suárez, but he now appears to have leap-frogged the Portugal international, who, if reports are to be believed, Barça tried to send to Tottenham during the last transfer window. Iniesta and Ivan Rakitić, who seems to have rediscovered his best form this season, remain ahead of him, though, so more patience is required of the player.
He will wait his turn, conscious that the two men standing ahead of him are vastly more experienced, with trophy cabinets packed with European honours. But he won’t wait forever. While at Manchester City, Suárez upped and left for Catalonia in 2013 when, despite being named the club’s Young Player of the Year a season earlier, he saw no realistic path to the first team.
In a World Cup year, playing time is paramount. Suárez will be hopeful of being included in Julen Lopetegui’s La Roja squad, although competition is stiff among a cast of supremely gifted midfield technicians.
Suárez is ready to be relied upon, to be valued and to be a key player. Ideally, he’ll be given the chance to achieve that at Barcelona, but his ambition won’t allow him to play second fiddle forever.