World Cup 2014 panel

Suárez’s killer instincts on the pitch are in his visual skills too

Eyeing up his next victim? Diego Azubel/EPA

Luis Suárez has struck again. For the third time now, the Uruguayan striker faces charges for biting an opponent and there is no defending this kind of behaviour on a sports pitch. While no one knows for sure what goes through his mind at moments like these, it’s nonetheless worth reflecting on what has made Suárez such an asset to Uruguay in his short stint at this World Cup. And, what they could be missing, if FIFA rule him out of the rest of the tournament.

After watching Luis Suárez virtually single handedly dismantle an unimaginative England team, Roy Hodgson’s assertions the he is not yet “world class” must surely be called into question. Suárez may not possess the lightening speed of Cristiano Ronaldo, the physical prowess of Zlatan Ibrahimovic or the twinkling toes of Lionel Messi, but there is certainly something that sets him apart.

During the Uruguay-England match pundits would comment: “He always seems to be in the right place at the right time.” Or, as if Suárez possesses some magical power that others can only dream about: “He seems to know what is going to happen next.” The reality is, in my opinion, that Luis Suárez has managed to hone his visual abilities to such an extent that they are what set him apart from others and give him that vital edge, even in games when he is only one month out from major knee surgery.

In fact, were his strengths more physical in nature, such as other world class strikers, then perhaps his comeback would not have been so successful. But, unfortunately for England, Suárez’s vision was in as tip top condition as it has been all season for Liverpool.

Exceptional vision

There are certain clues, when watching Suárez play, which give away how heavily he relies on his exceptional vision. Whether he has the ball or not, he is always looking around him, head up, scanning for the next pass, or the spaces which may open up to his advantage. He very rarely feels the need to look directly at the ball, instead trusting his peripheral awareness to keep track of that and using his much more sensitive central vision to look around him and gather information to make his next move.

The style of play which Suárez has developed also suggests his superior visual skills. He not only scores huge numbers of goals (31 last season, making him joint with Ronaldo for the leading scorer in Europe), but also sets his team mates up more than most of his counterparts (13 times in the league this season compared to Messi, 11; Ibrahimovic, 11; Ronaldo, 9). This is a sign of someone who can not only spot the movements of teammates, but can use exceptional spatial awareness to determine if they are in a better position to score than he is himself.

While I am a strong believer that visual skills can be trained and developed in the same way as other technical skills and abilities, it is highly unlikely that Suárez will ever have specifically worked and trained this part of his game. Therefore to understand how this exceptional ability has developed we need to consider what may have been different in his footballing history.

Suárez is not the biggest of players and grew up playing on the streets in Uruguay. I would suggest that the easiest way for a small boy to not get kicked or knocked off the ball when mixing with bigger, stronger players is to move the ball on before a defender can catch up with you (and we have all witnessed what happens when a defender actually does get too close to him).

So the one touch, pass and move football is the ideal way for him to play. Also, playing on bumpy, uneven ground requires eye-foot co-ordination to develop exceptionally early, and to a standard far beyond that required when playing on a perfectly manicured, smooth grass field as England’s youth players will be used to.

Staring into space

Research has shown that, among other things, elite level athletes differentiate themselves with better visual skills, which give them better anticipation, scanning, and situational awareness. Thankfully for young, developing players, research also demonstrates that these skills can be trained and enhanced, even in top level athletes.

But, where evidence is still lacking is from real top level athletes like the stars of the World Cup. I was fortunate enough to be able to analyse eye tracking data from Cristiano Ronaldo and see exactly where his eyes were focused when trying to control the ball and keep it away from a defender. While he did spend time looking at the ball as he performed his skills, he also spent more time than a lower level athlete would looking at the body position of his opponent as well as for space in which to move. Similarly, if we could put an eye tracker on Suarez when he plays, this would give huge amounts of data to be able to advance knowledge and develop the skills of future generations.

While it is possible that Suárez focuses his vision on identifying the movements of his teammates or defenders caught slightly out of position, I would speculate that in fact his eyes are drawn first to the spaces on the pitch and that these are what he manipulates and exploits to his advantage. It’s clear that Suárez is a vital asset to the Uruguay team and his skill is such that a ban for him would be a killer blow for them going forward.