There was a certain irony to the Anfield crowd singing Daniel Sturridge’s name aloud last night. For so long the striker’s relationship with the Merseyside supporters has been frostier than it should be, and while other strikers who have come and gone have been the subject of songs from the stands, Sturridge has never truly won over a large section of those who flock through the turnstiles.
Perhaps the lack of warmth from the fans stems from his wavy-armed celebration, or the fact that he can often appear a little aloof on the pitch in the way he holds himself. There’s no real concrete answer to why this is the case, but the past few weeks have seen his stock rise with the club’s followers, just as his on-pitch worth seems to have dropped to an all-time low.
The EFL Cup semi-final second leg defeat to Southampton was one the striker will want to forget. Time and again he struggled to get into the action and spurned the chance of the game when the ball dropped invitingly to him in the six-yard box in front of a Kop stand waiting for the net to ripple. The Sturridge of old would have dispatched such an opportunity with consummate ease, but for the modern installment we now see it seems that everything is a struggle. His legs heavy, the burden of having to make an impact in fits and starts heavier still.
Sturridge, despite his woes this season, still sits in the top three Liverpool players in terms of goals per game in the Premier League era. Although his 45 is significantly fewer than any other in the top five, he’s managed them across just 82 outings, coming in at 0.546. A goal every other game for a club of Liverpool’s stature is no mean feat, and is all the more impressive given factors surrounding his availability.
He arguably peaked in 2013/14 alongside Luis Suarez in the famous ‘SAS’ forward line that so nearly carried the club to a shock Premier League title under Brendan Rodgers. Not a partnership in the traditional sense, the Anglo-Uruguayan duo seemed the thrive on their game of one-upmanship, and with the now Barcelona superstar winning the individual battle with 31 of pair’s 52 league goals, it is often forgotten that Sturridge laid the foundations for that season with three goals in trio of 1-0 victories to secure the Reds nine points from their first nine as his partner-in-waiting watched on from the sidelines, serving another ban.
As we all know, it was to be Suarez’s last campaign on Merseyside and as he departed for Spain. Many took solace in the thought that Sturridge was the heir-apparent to take the talisman mantle. Money was lavished to secure players such as Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic to load the ammo for him to fire the club on, while new contract was put his way, making him the highest earner in the squad on an estimated £150,000 per week.
The stage, it seemed, was set.
But injuries reared their head again, and with the burden of supplying the goals in his absence falling to Rickie Lambert and a young Raheem Sterling, the pain was felt (literally) by the player and (metaphorically) by Rodgers and the supporters. He still scored when he returned to the side – a late goal vs. West Ham on January 31 2015 sticks in the mind of many – but these moments were too few and too far between.
And this has effected more than just the club in terms of points and league position; each knock, strain and pull robbing Sturridge of a slice of the lightening pace that made him so terrifying. The sort of speed that had Arsenal running scared at Anfield in 2014 as they blew the Gunners away 5-1.
Jamie Carragher, a man who played alongside the forward before retiring in 2013, summed up the decline on Sky Sports after the Southampton loss:
“Sturridge is a completely different player now to when he first came to Liverpool,
“You could link him with Sadio Mane when he first came because the whole point of Liverpool buying Sturridge under Brendan Rodgers when I was at the club was that he gave us penetration in behind, he had pace.
“But there was one occasion in the game where he fell over into the hoardings in front of the Kop and I thought he had to get that ball. I don’t know if his pace has completely gone or whether he’s that worried with injuries that he pulls out of something.
“Sturridge is not the player to run in behind, so you can forget about him replacing Mane. All he does is come to feet now.
“When he doesn’t score you’re basically down to ten men because they are not offering anything else whatsoever.”
The numbers back up Carragher’s analysis, too, with Sturridge’s average speed across the turf having dropped from 32.4km/h in 2013/14 to 28.5km/h now. Although that may not seem like a huge decline, it’s come at a period when the club are moving in a more explosive direction in terms of their play under Jurgen Klopp – whose fast-paced, counter-pressing style of football is all about harrying opponents and moving quickly when in possession.
Sturridge does not fit.
And it’s not just the pace that makes him ill-suited to Klopp’s system, it’s Sturridge’s desire to play centrally, which he talked up after scoring twice against Burton in the EFL Cup back in August. Speaking to The Guardian in the wake of the win, he said:
“It is more difficult for me to play wide.
“I’m a centre-forward. In the modern day game you have to try and be flexible but everyone knows my best position.
“Everyone knows where I enjoy playing the most. I’m a player who plays on instinct, and in the middle I have clarity on movements and things that I have been doing for years. I am on autopilot there. You just do things because you are used to doing it.
“I have to do a job for the team. That’s not saying I am happy to do it. That’s saying I have got to do a job for the team.
“It’s a team game. If I am put in that position, I have to play there.”
It’s the end of that revelation that probably stuck with Klopp, who has rarely bowed to Sturridge’s obvious demands. The German is all about the team instead of the individual, and in Roberto Firmino he has a selfless runner, a player willing to press from the front and drift into positions to cover the likes of Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Lallana when they come into the middle. It’s not that Sturridge won’t do these things, it’s more that a line was drawn in the sand that day and Klopp cannot, either through stubbornness or belief in his plan, go back.
This has frustrated the player, and that’s understandable. His face (below) when left on the bench as Liverpool saw out a narrow win over West Brom earlier this season said it all, while the fact he sat on the sidelines for the entirety of the recent win and draw against Manchester City and Manchester United shows that his manager doesn’t trust him in the biggest games. For a player who prides himself on doing the most difficult task on the pitch, to not be required in the tightest games must hurt.
— FootballFanCast.com (@FootballFanCast) 22 October 2016
The only logical solution, it seems, is a parting of the ways. The relationship between Sturridge and Klopp, although played out as being healthy in the media spotlight, looks to have run its course. The manager isn’t going to change his approach and the player is not, or cannot, alter the way he plays. Klopp needs explosive, versatile players, while Sturridge needs a team set up to play to his strengths. After all, he’s still dangerous across short distances due to his intelligence and reading of the game and makes the sort of runs that will turn a midtable team into one capable of competing for European qualification.
The summer of 2017 will, in all likelihood, see a parting of the ways. But while Sturridge may have heard his name sung aloud by the fans he’s found it so difficult to charm, too much water has passed under the bridge. It will continue to flow to the detriment of himself, Klopp and Liverpool if it’s left unaddressed.