37 seconds. That’s all it took Luis Suarez to allay any fears that he wouldn’t fit in at Atletico Madrid, providing an assist for new teammate Marcos Llorente almost as soon as he was introduced off the bench against Granada. After 23 minutes, the Uruguayan had also found the back of the net himself—twice.
Indeed, Suarez made quite the first impression on his new employers having secured a surprise switch from Barcelona just days previously. Now 33, Suarez is into the twilight of his career, but on this showing he still has plenty to offer Atletico Madrid. He wouldn’t be the first former Barça forward to prove there is life after the Camp Nou at Atleti.
Seven years ago, David Villa made the same move at a similar point of his career. Having been a key figure for Barcelona over a number of years, leading the Catalans to La Liga and Champions League glory under Pep Guardiola, Villa was allowed to leave amid lingering concerns over his injury record.
Diego Simeone saw an opportunity to revitalise one of the best goalscorers Spain has ever produced, using Villa to boost his side’s attack as Atletico Madrid pulled off one of the greatest upsets in European soccer history, beating Barcelona and Real Madrid to the La Liga title in 2013/14. Villa scored 13 times in 36 appearances.
That was to be his one and only season at Atleti, but Villa left a lasting mark on the capital club. Now—with a wide-open La Liga title race—Suarez could do the same. He too has had trouble with injuries, with Barcelona ultimately deciding they could no longer rely on the Uruguayan. Simeone, however, believes he can revitalise Suarez.
For all the success Simeone has enjoyed over nine years at Atletico Madrid, his biggest weakness is in the identification of suitable strikers for his system. While Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann all became giants of the game under the Argentine, few have gone through as many forwards as Simeone has in the last few years.
Since 2014, Mario Mandzukic, Raul Jimenez, Alessio Cerci, Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto, Fernando Torres, Kevin Gameiro, Diogo Jota, Nikola Kalinic and Alvaro Morata have all passed through Atletico Madrid, with Costa also returning for a second spell at the club. Collectively signed for over $300 million, these strikers all failed to provide Simeone with what he needed.
Of course, Simeone’s system is particularly demanding on centre forwards. The Argentine tends to partner a battering ram (the role perfected by Costa in his first spell at Atleti) with a mobile ‘false nine’ given the freedom to roam (the role perfected by Griezmann). Both strikers, however, are expected to contribute defensively. Most players can’t remain so relentlessly focused on the ball.
In terms of his profile as both a player and a personality, Suarez looks to stand a good chance of satisfying Simeone’s demands. But have Atletico Madrid signed the Uruguayan on the basis of what he is now or on what he was in the past? Can 2020 Suarez fulfill Simeone’s criteria as effectively as he would have done three or four years ago?
While Suarez finished last season with 21 goals in 36 appearances in all competitions, his lack of fitness was a persistent problem. Injuries kept the Uruguayan out for a number of matches. Not only that, the 33-year-old needed time to get back up to speed when he returned. After a spell on the sidelines, Suarez needs at least two or three games to find sharpness again.
It made sense for Barcelona to move on Suarez this summer. Some have questioned the logic of letting the Uruguayan join a direct rival in the same league, but the Catalans needed to reduce their wage bill as well as the average age of their squad. The sale of Suarez helped Barça in both regards.
Atletico Madrid was also a natural landing spot for Suarez. This is a club that, under Simeone, has revelled in the dark arts of the sport, comfortable in their status as pantomime villains. Suarez is the archetypal pantomime villain, with Simeone admitting he wanted the Uruguayan at Atleti before he even signed for Barcelona. Simeone and Suarez looks to be the perfect match.
Suarez isn’t the long term solution Atletico Madrid have spent the last few years looking for in attack, but he could still be a solution of sorts. His arrival at the Wanda Metropolitano is proof that rather than changing his ways, Simeone will go back to what he knows best. That could be exactly what Atleti need. The old ways are often the best.