Luis Suárez is not Atlético Madrid’s best player. That distinction belongs to Koke, with João Félix next in line. Nor is the 34-year-old Uruguayan as essential to the team’s style of play as the likes of Mario Hermoso and Kieran Trippier, whose ability to thrive in demanding hybrid roles is crucial to the fluid system manager Diego Simeone has implemented this season. But if Atleti maintains the searing form that has the team on pace to hit 100 points and run away with the league title, it will be in large part thanks to the monstrous, and monstrously consistent, performances of Suárez, one of the most dependable forces La Liga has ever seen.
The start of the 2020–21 season had to have been one of the lowest points in Suárez’s professional career. Fresh off the latest in a series of big-stage Barcelona humiliations, this time a farcical 8–2 Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich, Suárez was made something of a fall guy for his old club’s woes and shoved out the door. The club he’d given so much to had essentially told him he was too old and not good enough anymore, and that he was so unwelcome that they’d rather literally give him away to a direct rival rather than keep him around for another minute. The experience must have been enraging, painful, and motivating.
The move has proven a blessing for Suárez and especially for Atlético. Halfway through his first season in Madrid, Suárez leads the league in scoring with 14 goals. The month of January has been particularly productive for the striker, as he’s scored six goals and assisted one other in five matches, all of them victories. The Rojiblancos currently top the La Liga table with 50 points after 19 games, which is 10 points better than both Barcelona and Real Madrid in one fewer match played. And it’s games like Sunday’s, where Suárez scored a brace in a 4–2 win against Cádiz, that demonstrate just how important Suárez’s reliability in front of goal has been to what’s shaping up to be a dominant Atlético title run.
Though the scoreline of the Cádiz match doesn’t really reflect it, Atleti weren’t at their best over the weekend. The aforementioned Hermoso and Trippier were both absent, which didn’t help matters, nor did Félix’s bad day on the pitch, where the little genius failed to take a single shot, create a single chance, or complete a single dribble before getting subbed off after an hour of play. Atlético led for the majority of the match but failed to control the game’s pace, created hardly any good chances, and was outshot by its midtable opponents 11–9. Nevertheless, the visitors knocked four goals past the home team, two of which came from Suárez’s right foot, and the team collected a fairly easy three points.
The thing about Suárez in his winter years is that, even though he’s far from the player he was in his prime, he remains an absolute killer in the penalty area. (Fittingly, his opening strike against Cádiz, scored from a belter of a free kick, was the first time this season he’s scored from outside the box.) Away from the final third, Suárez is a shell of his former self. But in a team that can compensate for his decline—when tasked with little more than getting into the penalty area, awaiting service, and whacking a handful of balls at the keeper every game—Suárez is a lock to score copious amounts of goals. And in the league context, those goals are manna from heaven.
It’s no coincidence that Suárez, in a wholly complementary team that maximizes his strengths and mitigates his weaknesses, is once again in contention for La Liga’s golden boot award, as he has been every season since coming to Spain in 2014. It’s also no coincidence that the team with Suárez leading the line is all set to win the title: Should Atlético hold on to its sizable points lead, it will be Suárez’s fifth La Liga trophy in seven seasons. Domestic league seasons are won by scoring on good days and on mediocre days, by fighting through fatigue and dips in form and inconsistencies with enough goals to vacuum up as many wins and points as possible. And even at his advanced age, Suárez is still one of the best in the world at knocking them in when his teammates set them up.
The diverging fortunes of Barcelona and Atleti this season are a neat encapsulation of what Suárez can and cannot do at this point in his career. After years of poor transfer strategy, Barcelona failed to build a team that could compensate for Suárez’s shortcomings, and so it had to get rid of him and try to construct something new. After much struggle and experimentation, the new Barça that has emerged over the past month or so is arguably more coherent than the one Suárez played for, but it is also much less competitive and consistent from week to week without the Uruguayan’s reliable raft of goals.
For Atlético, Suárez’s enduring greatness in the box has the team flying in La Liga. However, even in the nearly ideal settings of Madrid, this senescent Suárez finds it hard to compete against top opposition in the Champions League. Scoring a brace against the Cádizes of Spain is one thing; scoring against the Bayern Munichs or even the Lokomotiv Moscows of Europe is another, which is why Suárez has zero goals in four Champions League matches for Atlético, and averaged half (1.8) as many shots per game in that competition as he does in La Liga (3.6). When teams don’t simply grant Suárez entry into the penalty box and are well-equipped to stymie him when he gets there, Suárez becomes toothless and an active hindrance to his team’s attack.
Suárez’s goals and Atlético’s fantastic performances are proof positive that the club’s decision to snatch up Barcelona’s jetsam was a masterstroke, at least domestically. If the pace continues and Suárez wraps the season with some 30 goals and the team wins the title with some 100 points, the season and Suárez’s signing will go down as amongst the very best seasons and signings in club history, regardless of whether the aging striker’s limitations preclude a deep Champions League run. Old Man Suárez might not be anywhere near as good as the prime one, but even as the grandfather version, Suárez scoring goals is like clockwork.