By Joe Simpson

“Put aside the Ranger. Become who you were born to be.” Lord Elrond, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

WHEN people ask me what I am most looking forward to this season, it isn’t the new signings, it isn’t the continued development of the youngsters, it isn’t even the amount of pace in the side – although I am very excited about all these things  no the thing I am most excited about seeing is Daniel Sturridge become the player he was born to be.

Sturridge has always had the potential to reach the highest level as a footballer and this was evident from a very young age at Manchester City and resulted in Chelsea’s interest in him. Despite his time on the periphery at Chelsea, a player with his combination of pace, technique and finishing ability was always going to rise to the very top if provided with the right conditions to grow.

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Sunderland AFC

Thankfully Liverpool, and more specifically Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, have  been the club to provide him with the right blend of conditions for him to develop.  Rodgers’ coaching, man-management and consistent selection of Daniel Sturridge (generally as a central striker) has allowed him to begin to fulfil some of his massive potential.

Last season at one point, he had a goalscoring rate that was better than everyone except Aguero (yes, better than Suarez, Ronaldo and Messi) in the top five European leagues and he finished the season with 21 goals and seven assists in the league which is an extremely impressive return by anyone’s standards.  Moreover, as an excellent article by Colin Trainor showed, Sturridge was involved (scored or assisted) in a higher number of important goals – goals when we are losing or drawing – than Suarez last year.

However, more significantly, Sturridge’s involvement in important goals when his club are losing is considerably higher than every other player in the Premier League.  So, while he may have a laid back demeanour, the statistics show that when the going gets tough, Sturridge gets going.

As impressive as the statistics are, what they fail to tell you is that within these goals Sturridge has also demonstrated the rare gift of being able to score all types of goals from simple tap-ins to goals of great individual brilliance. Furthermore while I think Suarez’s “poor” record against the top teams has been somewhat overplayed, it is certainly worth noting that Daniel Sturridge has demonstrated that he can score goals in the biggest games scoring against Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Everton during his time at Liverpool.

However, he has not just been impressive in terms of his goalscoring, his all-round performances have been excellent with him showing that alongside being an outstanding finisher he is also an extremely gifted footballer.

Clearly Sturridge has shown himself to be one of the best strikers in the Premier League but he has the potential to become one of the best – if he isn’t already – in the world.  The departure of Suarez, while creating a difficult challenge for the club, may also have provided Sturridge with the ideal opportunity to take the next significant step in his development.

Last season, while the team was primarily set up to get the best from both Suarez and Sturridge, there were times when he had to move to the flanks or drop deeper than he would have liked.  While some of this will still be needed on occasion he will almost certainly have less of the dirty work to do, enabling him to focus almost entirely on hurting teams in the final third.

Moreover, while he undoubtedly benefited from the huge distraction and gravitational pull of defenders into Suarez’s orbit, Sturridge almost certainly also suffered at times from teammates who – understandably – tended to see Suarez as their go-to pass.

In the new campaign, if as expected we go with Sturridge as the lone striker, he will be the number one focal point for attacks, meaning that he will receive more passes and have more opportunities to do damage either with the ball or running on to through balls.

This leads me to my next point that while Liverpool may have lost their best partnership from last season, this partnership was actually Suarez and Sterling rather than Suarez and Sturridge.

As Rodgers himself said on Suarez and Sturridge: “They are not a pair, for me. They are individual players that play up in a system that works very well. They’re soloists, they can combine, they do look for each other but they are more individual talents who play up there.”

With Sturridge now becoming the focal point we may now see a more consistent return of his best partnership during his time at the club – his extremely promising link up with Coutinho.  The Coutinho-Sturridge link up had shown particularly in the season before last that it had the potential to be extremely effective.  If Coutinho can continue to develop and turn his brilliance into more consistent performances – not an unlikely development considering his age – then his vision and execution of through balls, combined with Sturridge’s pace, movement and clinical finishing, could be devastating.

However, despite the expected improvement  through the team now being set up primarily to maximise his effectiveness and his continued development via Rodgers’ coaching on the training ground, the major reason why I believe that Sturridge will now move on to that next level is psychological.

From what I have seen and read Sturridge has always known that he belongs at the very top of the game and only circumstances (such as competing with world-class strikers at a young age) have stopped him getting there sooner. This delay in him reaching his current level – during which time he has seen inferior players such as Welbeck move above him in the international pecking order – will undoubtedly have been frustrating for him.

Sturridge is so self-confident that despite him saying all the right things – he seems like a great guy after all – I would imagine he has always been frustrated at having to play second fiddle even to the likes of Drogba, Anelka and more recently Suarez.

Now some reading this – if they agree with my thoughts – may think this is arrogant considering the calibre of those players. I would disagree: it is just the supreme self-confidence that the very best strikers need. I always remember Martin O’Neill saying that Emile Heskey could be a top class player if he was more confident. O’Neill said Heskey’s confidence was so fragile that if he miscontrolled his first touch in a game you may as well take him off as his performance would be considerably worse as a result of this denting his confidence.

Give me an extremely self-confident player any day. Also even if Sturridge is arrogant, to paraphrase Viper in Top Gun, I like that in a player!

Football - Liverpool FC Preseason Tour 2014 - Liverpool training in Harvard

I believe that Sturridge is the type of striker who steps on to the pitch – irrespective of who else is on it – and thinks he is the best player. A player with this mindset is understandably going to find it slightly irritating being regarded as the second best player on his own team. Now however he will have the mantle of being his team’s best player and I believe that he will enjoy and thrive on being considered the main man.

I always remember hearing about how Steve Archibald on his first day at Barcelona – replacing Maradona no less – made sure he took Maradona’s old locker (that still had his name plastered all over it) to show the dressing room from the outset that he wasn’t intimidated by replacing him and was capable of being their main man.

I think Sturridge has a similar mindset and will be looking forward to metaphorically taking Suarez’s locker (and hopefully his Footballer of the Year awards).

Sturridge will feel he has a point to prove because he is still underrated by many people. Probably the best example came during the World Cup when, following Suarez’s goals against England, Glenn Hoddle said: “We have been beaten by a world-class finisher…If we had a finisher like that we’d have won both games [against Italy and Uruguay].”

Yes, despite Sturridge’s outstanding season showing England do have a finisher “like that” Hoddle was adamant that England lacked an “out-and-out goalscorer.”  Saying that he also felt that Michael Owen wasn’t a natural goalscorer and his thoughts on reincarnation are best left for another life.

I have a feeling we won’t be hearing anymore ludicrous comments like these about Daniel Sturridge after the upcoming season.

A team set up to get the most out of him, the psychological benefits of being the main man and a point to prove is the perfect storm for Sturridge to become the world class player he was always destined to become.

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