A Look at Denis Suarez and his Path to the Barcelona First Team

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Barcelona is a team full of big names, and a number of them played last weekend against Sevilla. Headlined by Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, the attacking trio otherwise known as “MSN,” and supported by the likes of Sergio Busquets, Barca’s stars led them to a 2-1 win in the league against Jorge Sampaoli’s men. It may not have been a vintage performance, especially after Barca were challenged by Sevilla’s pressing game, but it was still a strong showing.

So in the wake of a solid display against one of Spain’s most attacking outfits, one might have expected Luis Enrique to direct his praise towards one of the big names. Instead, he bypassed his stunning strike trident and looked a little further afield. The name he came up with was Denis Suarez, the 22-year-old midfielder who has divided his time between the bench and the starting line-up this campaign. “I’d like to highlight Denis Suarez. Every time he’s had a chance he’s taken advantage by performing well,” Enrique asserted. “It’s difficult to perform when you’re not starting regularly, but Denis is managing to do that. With that attitude, when you see what he’s doing, you have to congratulate him and hold him up as an example of what a good professional is.”

Suarez appreciated the words, calling it a “privilege” to have those things said about him, and as a player who has been forced to wait for his chances this season, he probably savoured them a little more than those ahead of him in the pecking order would have. After all, this is a guy who kicked off 2016/17 brightly, starting Barca’s first three games in La Liga, before being relegated to the bench for the following six matches. That’s before even mentioning the UEFA Champions League, where Suarez is yet to register a single appearance this season.

Still, he’s not complaining. “I’m fighting to start games. I know I’ve just got here and I have to be patient and try to take advantage of my chances,” he said. “I’m happy with my participation. In Barça no-one’s gifted anything. You always want to play more, but I have teammates at the top level, like Iniesta, who’s the best in the world in my position.”

Suarez, it seems, is a player who understands that you can’t start at the top, especially at a big club. This is a lesson he’s had to learn a few times throughout the course of his young career, starting at Manchester City. He might have arrived at the English club as a top young prospect, but after enduring a tough spell there, one which ended in limited first-team minutes, he decided to move back to Spain. That allowed him to make the jump to one of the world’s biggest clubs in Barcelona, but even then he had to bide his time. That started out in Barcelona’s B team, where he had to learn many of the tricks to fit into the Blaugrana’s unique possession-based philosophy.

“The play is always positional in the sense that everyone respects their position and when any player has the ball he always has two other players making a triangle for him, giving him at least two options for the pass. That’s our football and you have to respect that to play here,” Suarez argued. “I remember when I arrived at Barca B the coach, Eusebio, got hold of me and with the pitch divided into different areas, said, ‘These are your zones — you stay within these.’

“And at Barca you know the ball will arrive,” Suarez continued. “You don’t need to go wandering to find it, it will come to you and you can play! If you wait, each man in his position, then in the end the ball will come. Football that way is easier.”

Suarez begun to learn these lessons back then, in the 2013/14 season, before moving away for a couple of spells at rival La Liga outfits. Those were with Sevilla and Villarreal respectively, and after spending 2015/16 with the latter, Barcelona exercised a €3.5 million buy-back option to bring him back to the Camp Nou.

All of this means the Celta Vigo youth product has taken a circuitous route to earn a place in Barcelona’s first-team squad, and now, after honing his skills over several seasons, he’s finding his feet. Barcelona’s recent win over Sevilla was his 10th league appearance for the season, and although he hasn’t found starts easy to come by since the opening weeks, he has lined up from the opening whistle for the previous two matches.

Of course, Andres Iniesta’s recent layoff has helped with this, but Suarez is nonetheless showing what he can bring to the table with his performances. Against Sevilla, he operated as a left-sided central midfielder, and in a display of tight close control, quick feet and assured passing, you could actually see a little of Iniesta. Suarez describes Iniesta as a player who “floats around the pitch when he plays,” and when Suarez himself weaved between three Sevilla markers before sliding Luis Suarez in behind the opposition defence, he looked like he was floating, too.

Granted Suarez has a long way to go before he can be properly compared to Iniesta, but that’s the kind of player he is hoping to become. The youngster watches and learns from Iniesta in training, and as he said recently, “I hope one day I can be like him.” He certainly approaches the game in the same way as Barca’s elder statesman, and with an interesting mix of slick passing, neat dribbling and an ability to keep Barcelona’s famed possession game going, he’s tracking in the right direction.

In order to make all of this happen, though, Suarez displays a keen positional alertness. The thing he was once told to work on in Barcelona’s B team is now something that could be considered a strongpoint for him. He loves to hover in slightly deeper central midfield locations before cutting inside, either to strike a long diagonal out to the right-hand side or, more simply, to find one of the many options nearby. He also shows a good sense of when to float out towards the left-hand touchline, a move which then allows Neymar to cruise in from the left and take up that half-space in between the lines.

None of this is to say that Suarez is the finished article, but he is undoubtedly a player on the rise. This is important for Barca’s planning, especially with the now 32-year-old Iniesta playing in the twilight of his career. Indeed, there will, at some point, be a vacant space in the heart of Barcelona’s midfield, and even with guys like Andre Gomes vying for the same position, Suarez will hope to make that spot his own.

Who knows, maybe one day he will even be considered a star of Barcelona’s line-up.