When Daniel Sturridge entered the fray on Saturday night, there was a sense of something resembling relief. Even before he scored, the truth was that you felt Liverpool had a better chance of something happening with him on the pitch.
That’s always been the impression with Sturridge. Whatever you think of the player, it’s hard to argue that you’re ever unhappy to see him in the team, or coming off the bench. As a Liverpool fan, you’re only ever frustrated with Sturridge when he isn’t available, not when he is. Klopp encapsulated the situation by saying:
“It’s always been about being physical. He was always an important part of the team when he was fit.”
The numbers will always back that up. In the three or so seasons he’s been working with Klopp, Sturridge has started just 23 league games, clocking just over 2200 minutes, but he’s scored 15 goals, one every 147 minutes.
There has never been a question that Sturridge can contribute the end product, the questions have only ever been about his fitness, or more interestingly, the way he fits into a Klopp side. These are both questions that Sturridge has been working hard over the summer to answer.
His failed loan spell at West Brom seems to have lit a fire under Sturridge. Being sat on the sidelines while his team got relegated, coupled with Liverpool reaching a Champions League final has certainly changed his outlook, and doubled down on his determination to play a role in this Liverpool team. Nobody doubts for a second that we could have used him off the bench in Kiev.
And Sturridge so far has made an explosive start to this season, playing exactly the role that Klopp would have wanted him to play. In a period of time in which Liverpool have had five games in two weeks, Sturridge started both midweek games against PSG and Chelsea – and scored on both starts. He’s been less used in the league so far, making just five sub appearances worth 25 minutes, but has scored twice nevertheless.
Sturridge has never needed to be a mainstay in the team to contribute with goals. Plenty of strikers need form, need rhythm and need game-time to find their shooting boots and their best form. Divock Origi is one such recent example. Sturridge has never been one of those players and seems to find the net instinctively.
One thing that Sturridge seems to be benefitting from this season is mutual trust and an acceptance of his role. Sturridge is Liverpool’s first choice back-up up front, something he might not have been in the past when Klopp has at times favoured Solanke or Origi, who appeared better suited to the system compared to Sturridge. But Sturridge has earned Klopp’s favour back with an excellent pre-season and adapting his game slightly to the needs of his manager. And in return, Sturridge trusts that he will get games, and be able to contribute.
It would have been easy for Sturridge to get frustrated after Klopp gave him scraps to feed off in the early stages of the season – making little more than cameos in Liverpool’s first five league games with ten minutes against Brighton his longest spell on the field in the PL this season. But when Firmino faced his eye injury, Sturridge was given the chance to shine against PSG and he took that chance with aplomb.
The question of whether Sturridge should be starting for me doesn’t quite add up yet. As much as I was happy to see Sturridge come off the bench against Chelsea, I was even more relieved to see Bobby replace him against Paris. The front three are the first choice for a reason, and even with Sturridge back in form, he’s not quite on their level for me. Even though he’s improved his all-around game, he doesn’t offer the same levels of pace or pressing that you would expect in a Klopp side at their very best.
But the fact is that you don’t win the league with three attackers. Last season, there were spells where Liverpool were crying out for Sturridge. I felt that he wasn’t at his best when he did feature last year, and Liverpool’s record with him playing wasn’t great, but he still scored twice despite starting just five league games – and he contributed a goal or assist per 86 minutes across the league and Champions League last season.
If Sturridge’s role continues like this then Liverpool will be absolutely grateful to have him available. With games against Huddersfield, Cardiff, Fulham, Arsenal and Red Star twice in the three weeks following the international break – only one game less than in this spell – Liverpool will be grateful to have a proven goalscorer to either throw on against lesser opposition or one to even use from the start – increasingly an option if the current front three need a rest or are struggling for form.
If Sturridge starts three of those six games, then Klopp can manage at least one of his front three a bit more, and keep everyone fresh for the spells closer to Christmas where we’ll have high game volume, whilst also keeping Sturridge himself fresh. A player like Sturridge who has injury concerns over his head needs regular games and rhythm or he’s more likely to pick up more injuries.
It’s often the case that when we talk about Daniel Sturridge, it’s a case of him still having potential and not quite being able to contribute the way we’d like. As much as I’m enjoying Sturridge’s form at the start of this season, it’s been a while since he was last able to contribute in a big game like he has this season. The fact that Klopp himself highlighted the Europa League run in 2016 is a big indication of that – that’s the last time we saw Sturridge get a prolonged run of decent form and contributing regularly in important games.
But this season, Sturridge has already started to repay faith in him and is earning more faith by the minute. There’s talk of him playing for England again, and it’s been two years since his last England appearance. Klopp has repeatedly been full of praise for Sturridge, and if he keeps scoring when he comes off the bench, it’s only a matter of time until he starts more games.
The bottom line then is that whatever happens in the next seven months, Daniel Sturridge has already contributed positively in a big way to Liverpool’s season. And it feels damned nice to see it happening again. Maybe it really is the Year of the Studge.