Barcelona’s Denis Suárez spent two years with Manchester City and after several loan moves has found himself at the Camp Nou. Photograph: NurPhoto via Getty Images
Denis Suárez has an answer to that question: the one about Lionel Messi and a wet Wednesday night in Stoke. “Of course he could,” he says quietly, hardly heard over the rain against the roof. “He’d pick up the ball, dribble past three players and hit it into the top corner.”
Suárez knows better than most; he has been there, seen that. He nods in the direction of the Sant Joan Despí training pitch where Barcelona have just finished the morning session on a sodden pitch, while eight kilometres beyond lies the Camp Nou – and the last time he was there, Messi scored a hat-trick against Manchester City. On a wet Wednesday night.
“I’ve seen him seen him do it here in the rain, I’ve seen him do in the midday sun,” Suárez says. “He does it where he wants, when he wants. Messi’s unique. Put him in any team in the world and he’d be the best, just the same. And against English teams it usually goes OK for him.” OK is one word for it: Messi’s third against City a fortnight ago was his 16th in 15 games against English sides. That makes it sound easy, but Suárez knows that it is not. Football is different in England, it does require adaptation. He knows that too as he has experienced it for himself.
Suárez will be reunited with familiar faces at the Etihad on Tuesday, from Pablo Zabaleta, Sergio Agüero and David Silva to Xabi, Greg and Steve; friends who remain. His sister, Zulay, will be there, too: she still lives there with her boyfriend, a City fan who he hopes will change sides for one night.
It is three years since Suárez left the club he joined at 17, but so much as happened that it feels longer. Still only 22, he has been from City to Barcelona to Sevilla to Villarreal and back to Barcelona. A lot has happened at the Etihad too. From Roberto Mancini to Manuel Pellegrini and Pep Guardiola, it is a different club now, one that might have suited Suárez.
City’s aspirations were forming when he was there, but the change had barely begun. Ferrán Soriano and Txiki Begiristain had been there a couple of months when he left in 2013 and the coach they pursued was almost three years away. Yet the midfielder does not regret going and nor does he regret departing, just as he does not regret moving on every summer for four years, always wanting more, the ambition and bravery striking at each step. Tuesday’s team-sheets should vindicate his decisions. Had things been different he might have been in the City team; with the injury to Andrés Iniesta there is a reasonable chance he will be in the Barcelona side instead.
He might have been there sooner, or not at all. The point, he believes, is that he is there now. Barcelona wanted Suárez when he left Celta in 2011 but City offered the money his club desperately needed. Some in Vigo say he saved them by heading to Manchester. For him, the opportunity was huge and there is affection for City, even if ultimately he probably turned up too early. In their development, that is, if not his.
“When I arrived City was a more English club; now it’s a more globalised club,” he says. He has spoken before about the limited opportunities for young players and the way the youth league structure does not benefit development, while the style did not favour him either.
“When I arrived I went to the US with the first team, played there, and Mancini was very happy with me in training,” he says. “He told me: ‘This year you’re going to make your Premier League debut, you can be a very good player for us.’ But then pre-season ends, we go home, I go to the filial [City’s Under-21 side], the coach [Andy Welsh] doesn’t know me and I hardly play.”
It did not take long before Suárez spoke up. Animated now, he speeds through what happened, step by step. As he remembers it, there is no bitterness or anger, just an unusually straight honesty and a rare clarity. Determination too. “I couldn’t understand it. There’s a guy two metres tall playing in my position because he’s stronger.
“I went to talk to David, City’s scout in Spain, Gary [Cook] and Brian Marwood. I told them that if it didn’t change I didn’t want to stay. I’d left home, left everything behind, and this wasn’t the way it had been sold to me.”
It might have been easy to react badly, to ask who this kid thought he was, but City listened. “After that, things changed dramatically,” he says. “I kept training with the first team but played for the filial and that first season was good. I made my debut with Mancini in the League Cup and was included in the league squad [sometimes]. At the start of the second season I thought there’d be chances but I got injured, so it wasn’t great. Pellegrini arrived and I decided to leave.”
Barcelona wanted him and with a year left on his contract, City could hardly stop him. Suárez was 19 and, again, the matter-of-fact way he describes it is striking. Just as it is when he talks about joining, and leaving, Barcelona, Sevilla and Villarreal. At times, he had to push but he did not hesitate. This summer, Barcelona exercised a €3.5m buy-back option, a fee he says “clearly isn’t my market value”. It must have been hard to keep moving, keep risking? “Look,” he says, “the difficult thing was to leave home. It was relatively easy after that. And since leaving Barcelona it’s always felt like a path back again. Now I’m here, I want a place in the first team, to be here for years and win things.”
First step, win against City, the club partly built in Barcelona’s image. “Barça is a role model for every club: everyone wants to play like them,” he says. The question is can they really? “Well, they can try,” he replies. “Barça hasn’t come about in two years. It’s years of building an identity, staying faithful to a philosophy, the kids in the academy playing like the first team. City will try to do that. I know, I was there: they showed me the project, everything they wanted to do. They have the structure and the ability. Now they’ve signed a coach who’ll help them do that.
“You can see that Pep’s giving young players a chance. When I was there it was a bit different, it was the more physical players who went up to the first team. It was about strength. The filial played more direct style: almost long ball forward, look for the second ball. When Attilio [Lombardo] took over we tried to play a little differently but things didn’t change much. The way the first team play now is magnificent; Pep’s changed the philosophy. They already played attacking football but now it’s more about possession, emphasising the importance of having the ball.”
At Barcelona that is ingrained. There is much talk of philosophy. Suárez tries to explain what that is. “Barcelona’s play is positional. Everyone respects their position and when any player has the ball he has two others making a triangle for him, offering passes. He always has an exit,” he says, marking positions on the table. “One here, another here, another here.”
“That’s our football and you have to respect that to play here; if you respect those positions, you have options. We usually play a 4-3-3 which facilitates that. I remember when I arrived at Barça B I was an interior [to the side of a narrow midfield three] and I was all over the pitch. Eusebio [the coach] got hold of me, divided the pitch into different squares and said: ‘these are your action zones: relax, stay there, the ball’s going to arrive. You don’t need to go wandering to find it; it will come. And from there, you play’.”
“At Barça the players are all so good. The centre-back can come to here,” Suárez says, finger tracing a line up the ‘pitch’. “And from there he can pass; you don’t need the deep midfielder to drop to get it off him. If you wait – each man in his position – then in the end, if you’re well positioned, the ball will come. Football’s easier that way. Watch the rondos [piggy-in-the-middle exercises] here and the ball travels very fast. The ball, eh. That’s what has to move quickest. The drills speed you up; you learn to move before the pass.”
That said, it helps to have the best players. Like Iniesta, who Suárez admires most. “It seems at times that he is floating just above the grass,” he says. Or his namesake, Luis, the least Barça of the Barça players. “When you’re in a tight spot, under pressure, you can hit it long and he’ll fight with anyone to win it and keep it,” Suárez says.
“Barça have had different strikers: Ibra[himovic], Leo as a false nine, Fàbregas too. Now Suárez. Above all, he’s a goalscorer but he gives you other options and he can play in a possession team too. He’s the best striker in the world. There aren’t many players who’ll score 50 goals a season.”
There is one, though. Denis Suárez’s team-mate, the man he says would could pick the ball up on a wet Wednesday night in Stoke, or better still a wet Tuesday night in Manchester, dribble round three men and stick the ball in the top corner.