It was indignation and not desperation that Liverpool’s principal owner displayed last summer, 24 hours after Luis Suarez had publicly demanded to be released.
With no great optimism, John W Henry had told Stan Kroenke, Arsenal’s majority shareholder, and Ivan Gazidis, their chief executive, that they needn’t bother making a second bid for the player. “But that doesn’t seem to slow them down,” Henry said. “I’ve told them we’ve won more cups than… no, I really don’t want to get into that..” he added, attempting to add levity to the situation. “More than Arsenal” being the sentiment he’d left hanging there.
The distaste about Arsenal’s £40,000,001 summer bid for the player ran deep – you can still locate it at Anfield – but if Henry had known then what he does now, it certainly would have been desperation he was displaying that August day. It is safe to surmise that Arsenal with Suarez would be on their way to a title by now – a world-class striker being the one commodity they miss – while Liverpool without his 23 goals in 19 league games would be further way from fourth place – a world-class defence being a commodity they miss.
They’re 14 Premier League games away from regaining a Champions League place and everything really centres around whether Suarez and Daniel Sturridge (combined Premier League goals total: 33) can take them there.
On the threshold of another game in which Liverpool will attempt to prove that they can attain against one of the division’s top three the same heights they scaled in bulldozing Everton and Tottenham – with one win in seven over Arsenal at Anfield a very poor return – it is worth reflecting on the role manager Brendan Rodgers has played in keeping Suarez with them in spirit.
The dislocation between Wayne Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson shows us the toxicity which can be created by a player demanding to leave a club. Suarez publicly accused Rodgers of reneging on a promise to let him leave last summer: “I spoke with Brendan Rodgers several times and he told me: ‘Stay another season and, you have my word, if we don’t make it [to Europe] then I will personally make sure you can leave.’” But Rodgers was willing to live and let live, when more egotistical men would never have forgotten.
Rodgers’ readiness to put that behind him is borne of self-interest, of course. But we have also seen the same man-management qualities which the northern Irishman’s former Swansea player Garry Monk – temporarily managing a side for which Michael Laudrup’s ego proved too much – was quick to recall this week. “I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t honest with me. His man-management is phenomenal,” was how Monk put it.
Rodgers does not brood on player problems. There are irritations – mobile phones ringing in press conferences grate more on him than others – but a look, or a word, and they are in the past. And so it was with Suarez.
When it was put to him ahead of the game that his conflict resolution with the Uruguayan came in sharp contrast to the rancour of this week’s Kevin Pietersen affair, he talked of knowing “the human qualities of Luis”. He is “a good man”, he said. “I’ve found since I’ve been here that he’s a very generous human being. I’ve found him very amicable in terms of everything I’ve spoken to him about. He’s a learner.” The way Rodgers evangelises can lead cynics to doubt him at times, but he was describing part of the essence of Suarez.
A fine interview with the player by Simon Hughes in this month’s Liverpool FC magazine provides the same insight into the “learner” with whom Rodgers reconnected after Liverpool had heeded the Professional Footballers’ Association’s advice and promised to introduce a get-out clause into his contract, last autumn. Suarez tells Hughes how he whiled away those long weeks in his extended pre-season, waiting for his 10-game ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic to end. He attempted to master the Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick technique of placing the ball with the valve facing up and striking the ball full-on with the instep, from an initial approach with his legs wide open.
What an image that is – Suarez aping Ronaldo in the chilly fields of Melwood in Liverpool’s West Derby district. “I did it again and again,” Suarez tells Hughes. “Every day I would try; really, really hard. But...” The delay apparently had comedy value. “I can’t!”
This was the Suarez that Rodgers was observing back in August when his testaments of faith in the Uruguayan just seemed like mere diplomacy. The player also discusses some of the other skills which have obsessed him. Nutmegs (which came before the free-kicks) were mastered at the Dutch club Groningen, which was his first European destination in 2006. “On the pitch you have one second, a minimal second,” Suarez said. “There is no time to think. If you have the ball and you see the defender has opened his legs, you have to try.”
The free-kick obsession began at Ajax, his next club. He will now place four balls at different angles and distances on the Melwood pitch, ask “the nearest goalkeeper” to help. “And then I think. I think about the different gaps: if it should be high, low – fast, a bit slow. That’s how it happens.”
Rodgers said the need to repair this relationship “made me a better manager”. He reflected on how “it was an issue”. Rodgers added: “You don’t get these scenarios when you’re doing your badges and coaching courses. Man-management is a big part of it. I’ve always been on the training field all my life but man-management is a big part of things. You always have to respect your players but hopefully you can also find common ground with the great players we have. With Luis, I always knew it would be fine. I’ve never known a player like him in training.”
Suarez’s exposition of his free-kick techniques concluded with the observation that, at the age of 27, he wants to get better “and I want the team to win– I just want to win”. Liverpool supporters will tell you he is one of the top three players in the world. They will admit that an extended absence from the Champions League does not befit him. Get there and he will stay at Anfield. Fail and he will be gone. The club can be forgiven for an element of desperation in their desire to win this lunchtime.