When Brendan Rodgers needed him most, Daniel Sturridge delivered. That is the story of Liverpool’s weekend compressed into a single sentence, counter-intuitively typifying how circumstance has continually conspired against the Ulsterman during his Anfield reign.
Having spent Friday’s pre-match press conference denying reports that he’d been sacked, securing all three points against an Aston Villa side set for another campaign in the Premier League’s bottom five was imperative to stopping the growing tide of supporter disillusionment becoming a tsunami – especially after the disappointing draw with Norwich City the weekend prior.
Liverpool are more accustomed to crucifying the Canaries via a spate of worldly efforts from Luis Suarez, so the 1-1 home draw was a harrowing reminder of their struggles since the Uruguayan swapped Merseyside for Barcelona in summer 2014. Rodgers needed a performance against Villa to prove his Anfield vision hasn’t turned into an irreversible, inescapable nightmare and Sturridge, making only his second Premier League start since March and only his 14th league appearance in 18 months, willingly provided it.
The 26 year-old netted a stunning half-volley at 59 minutes after a delicate one-two with James Milner on the edge of the box, whilst his shrewd side-footed finish ten minutes later turned out to be the decider in a 3-2 affair. Two goals of the highest calibre, albeit against the Premier League’s third-leakiest defence.
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The England international is now Liverpool’s most important player. Quick centre-forwards have always flourished over more attritional ones during Rodgers’ tenure but it’s equally a question of match-winning quality – the kind of quality required to break the Premier League’s top four. Sturridge now stands alone in that regard throughout the Liverpool squad, perhaps excepting the exciting but unpredictable Philippe Coutinho.
But the striker’s match-winning display against Aston Villa was in itself a testament to what Rodgers has been up against during his three years on Merseyside. Injuries have surrendered Sturridge to just 57 Premier League appearances out of a possible 100 since signing from Chelsea in January 2013, so one can only speculate how many points Liverpool have missed out on during his absences.
And Sturridge’s recurring sideline bouts are just the tip of the iceberg. Along with the 26-year-old, Rodgers has lost former captain Steven Gerrard to age and Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez to the allure of Champions League football over the last 18 months. Even when Sterling was there in body, he wasn’t quite in spirit; Gerrard’s case, vice versa.
They were four integral cogs of the Reds’ 2013/14 runner-up campaign; two of which two of the biggest clubs in Europe were willing to pay a combined £125million for, one of which is amongst the best strikers in the Premier League and the last of which has been the heart and soul of the Liverpool first team for so long that his debut was made in a different millennium. Spanning back a summer earlier, Rodgers lost Jamie Carragher, another Anfield icon and dressing room leader, to inevitable retirement.
The £255million spent in that time period suggests Rodgers has been allowed the finance to replace them – although whether the responsibility for signings should truly rest with him or Liverpool’s ‘transfer committee’, a gang so secretive, mythical and far removed from the public eye they rival Yale’s Skull and Bones society, remains open to interpretation.
However, that’s not necessarily true. How can you replace a one-club captain like Steven Gerrard, for example? Or a striker so eclectic he’s now the support act to Lionel Messi at Barcelona? Tottenham Hotspur involuntarily parted with Ledley King, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale in the space of a calendar year. Two seasons later, they’re still a shadow of the top-four contending force of old, despite spending £229million and sacking three managers.
Every club in world football, be they Barnet or Barcelona, would struggle after losing such a pivotal core. Take Manchester City’s shock defeat to Spurs on Saturday for example; Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany and David Silva were all absent, whilst Yaya Toure came off with an injury midway through the second half.
Of course, that by no means atones for Rodgers’ many errors as Liverpool boss, which are by no means exclusive to the transfer market. But Sturridge’s performance against Aston Villa proved what Liverpool are capable of with just one top-class player in their starting Xi, so imagine what they’d achieve if they still had four – or for that matter even just two.
Whilst he’s still no longer fit for purpose in the eyes of many, its unquestionable that Sturridge’s unfortunate injuries, Gerrard’s inevitable Premier League retirement and the departures of Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling – two transfers instigated by incidents out of his control – have made Rodgers’ primary aim of regular Champions League qualification a near-impossible task.
Although I’m sure he’ll eventually bare the brunt of responsibility and receive his marching orders, I doubt any manager, be they Jose Mourinho or Gary Megson, would have fared significantly better under the same circumstances.