HE IS back in training for the umpteenth time, but is Daniel Sturridge’s rediscovered fitness worthy of any real confidence from fans, or more importantly from Jürgen Klopp?
Supporters are understandably cautious to take Sturridge at his word after so many false starts over the past 18 months. When he declared, after returning to play a full part at Melwood on Tuesday, he was “fit and ready to go” reaction on forums and social media was mixed to say the least. And his fairly typical albeit bullish claim that “it’s going to be a great time for me” has been met with even greater scepticism. We’ve seen and heard it all before.
There’s no doubt that Sturridge has suffered something of a fall from grace in the eyes of the fans, with his commitment and supposed unwillingness to play through the pain barrier very much up for debate. When Roy Hodgson last year spoke of “testing his resolve” during England training, the England manager’s comments were met with predictable fury but most supporters would now begrudgingly admit Hodgson’s insinuation was close to the mark.
Sturridge has always enjoyed a strange relationship with Anfield regulars. Even when he was banging in goals for fun, not everyone warmed to his personality; his laconic style of play. Even his wriggly arms goal celebration has been mocked in some quarters. Not everyone believes in his God.
It’s not just the Kop’s lack of imagination that seldom brought Sturridge universal approval from the stands. When compared to Luis Suarez perhaps that is understandable but even Mario Balotelli was — at least for a while — serenaded by more audible acclaim.
Are we being unfair?
There is no doubt that the hamstring and thigh injuries that initially stunted Sturridge last season were genuine and no player chooses to have hip surgery, as was the case during the summer, unless it’s absolutely necessary. In some quarters it was suggested his operation was required to save his career or at the very least protect against the muscle strains that have dogged his time at Anfield.
Perhaps what brings such dismay — morphing into occasional ridicule and growing suspicion — into sharper focus is Sturridge’s remarkable goalscoring record when we can get him on the park. There remains a sense that a Liverpool side with a fit Sturridge is a different proposition. Regardless of love and affection, hopes have been pinned on his goals and being absent is letting the side down in every sense. In a squad that is increasingly recognised as lacking in players of the highest level, Sturridge remains a mirage of quality.
Such is his output, that when he is in absentia the team is impoverished in the most measurable way — through the currency of goals. Jordan Henderson’s lengthy lay-off, as much as it has impacted in different ways, is manageable through the deployment of other midfielders, whereas Sturridge has no peer when it comes to hitting the back of the net.
Rumours abound though about Sturridge’s mentality and his alleged refusal to play unless 100 per cent fit, something which was first cast into the public domain when Brendan Rodgers omitted him from the starting line-up in a Merseyside derby over two years ago. Sturridge came off the bench in that game to score a late equaliser and appeared to celebrate with no ill effects.
His latest injury; fluid on the knee after a collision over a month ago with Jordon Ibe in training bringing about another absence and uncertainty over prospective return dates has been an obvious annoyance to Sturridge’s new manager.
Klopp’s suggestion that a decent spell of uninterrupted training — as long as ten days — would be required before consideration of a full return to the fold suggests he wants the player to knuckle down and prove himself more hardy.
The manager has backtracked somewhat since and hasn’t ruled out a place on the bench at Manchester City; his suggestion that “for a striker sometimes it only takes five minutes” as much an admittance of Sturridge’s undoubted eye for a goal.
3 – Daniel Sturridge has completed 90 minutes in three of Liverpool's last 47 Premier League games. Fleeting.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 17, 2015
Maybe Sturridge was trying to keep in Klopp’s good books this week when he said: “It’s been great under the new manager.” But it sounded like a rather desperate attempt to overplay his involvement in learning from new methods thus far when he added: “I’ve been back in training for the past couple of days and I was training when he arrived.”
For the new man at the helm Sturridge is a huge conundrum in the short and longer term.
Klopp will be fully aware of the player’s ability which would, with normal availability, rank him alongside Philippe Coutinho as his best player.
It is however difficult to factor in Sturridge for the long haul but Klopp has to be mindful of what a fit striker of Daniel’s undisputed quality could bring to his team. Liverpool were short of goals before the new manager’s arrival, and bar the Coutinho-inspired treble at Chelsea, have consistently failed to look potent in front of goal since Klopp assumed control.
The general uplift in performance level is disguised by results so far, with just one win in four league games. Initially shorn of Christian Benteke, whose injury record and sporadic availability is of equal concern and frustration, Liverpool have continued to look relatively impotent in terms of penalty-box presence and finishing.
With a more penetrative threat up front than Benteke’s intermittent cameos and Divock Origi’s willing running, Klopp’s early points haul might well have ranked higher than five points from 12 so far. Prior to the German’s arrival, Sturridge’s two-goal salvo — both deliciously taken — brought three points against Aston Villa and underline what Klopp has been missing.
Looking further back and assessing a fit Sturridge’s potential worth to the team it is easy to forget the value of his tally of 21 league goals during 2013-14. Many of his strikes that season were match winners, including the three solitary strikes that brought the narrow 1-0 victories over Stoke, Aston Villa and Manchester United which ignited the campaign.
Later, there were signature efforts to underline his rare talent; in particular the inventive goal-line juggle and finish away to Stoke, and the audaciously brilliant lob as part of a brace that demoralised Everton. That was Sturridge at his peak; impudent, sometimes aloof celebration proof of his self-belief. For some he remained hard to love but you had to admire his goals.
Even last season, amid so many false starts, there were reminders of his prolific output when he was fit enough to take the field. The outpouring of relief around Anfield when he marked his original comeback in January with a goal against West Ham was palpable.
Sturridge’s erstwhile partnership with Suarez begs the question as to how he possibly dovetails with Benteke if and when both are fit. While they are completely different strikers it isn’t entirely obvious how they would blend.
Both players like to come deep, even if there is more physical bludgeon to Benteke compared to Sturridge’s precision blade. On the face of it, Sturridge has better lateral movement, with Benteke offering more of a focal point, but is either sufficiently industrious to lead a Klopp team pressing aggressively from the front?
The answers will come as both players achieve peak fitness over the coming weeks. For Sturridge, it is a period that could define his future Liverpool career as Klopp weighs us his January priorities. He’s very much on trial with fans and manager.
If he is indeed fit and ready to go, it is time for him to prove it once and for all. Supporters need to be won round all over again. If his body breaks down again, Klopp will be forced to reckon without him and put an end to prolonged uncertainty by looking elsewhere for goals.
Daniel Sturridge, it’s over to you. Prove your doubters wrong.
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