THIS is Daniel Sturridge’s 10th season as a first-team footballer at a Premier League club. He has started just 94 league games in that time.
But there are circumstances and dynamics that contribute towards a dubious statistic that makes Fabio Aurelio or Daniel Agger seem like men of granite.
To ignore the fact that in 2006-07, Sturridge began the campaign in Manchester City’s reserves and did not make his debut until the February would be unfair.
He was often available for City and his next club Chelsea but not selected because he was either a) considered too youthful and others were chosen ahead of him in order to justify spending during unique periods of new-found prosperity (at City certainly), or b) he had been promised more games (at Chelsea) only for the project to change upon a downturn of results, thus leading to a situation where the manager is not quite prepared to persevere with the inconsistencies that follow with a younger talent when he is under pressure to preserve his own status.
Sturridge lost a few years of his career because his own ambition and self-belief led him to Stamford Bridge, a place where depending on whether you view Gary Cahill as a major success, no British players have emerged or really made progress since John Terry and Frank Lampard more than a decade ago.
This prompted a move to Liverpool: where the opportunity to play was greater, where he has proven his potential — in that, he is a world-class finisher but could become a world class striker, albeit only if he was available more often.
Just as Steven Gerrard not losing his footing — or not even being positioned in a high-risk area of the field — when Liverpool lost to Chelsea in the season’s supposed defining moment, Sturridge could have been the difference had he not missed more than two months of the 2013-14 campaign when Liverpool went so close to the Premier League title.
Sturridge was given a new contract because, when he was available, his performances were consistently of a high standard and he scored lots of goals. His ratio is better than any of the strikers to have played in more than 50 games for Liverpool.
And yet, since Luis Suarez’s departure — when Sturridge was given a new five-year contract — he has been fit enough to play in just 23 of Liverpool’s 79 games. Those critical say his absence has become a sideshow — a distraction. How can a manager — whether it is Brendan Rodgers or Jürgen Klopp — plan around someone who is as unreliable as he is talented?
A story is told about Klopp being impressed by one player above the rest during his first day in charge at Melwood.
The player scored a hat-trick at the end of a session on the Monday afternoon; his speed, touch and finishing ability proving too swift for the team-mates attempting to stop him. Klopp knew this player was rapid but did not appreciate just how rapid — until he saw him as close as this.
The player was Sturridge. Before Liverpool travelled to London to face Tottenham Hotspur, Sturridge got injured, complaining of pain in his knee. Sturridge wasn’t exaggerating because scans revealed a problem was there and he promptly spent more than a month in recovery.
Sturridge eventually trained, made the bench against Manchester City and then ahead of last week’s Europa League fixture with Bordeaux, spoke of discomfort in his foot. Seemingly, it had disappeared three days later because he finally took to the field for his first appearance under Klopp in the narrow victory over Swansea City.
Many have criticised Sturridge for not playing through pain. Many have criticised his character; claiming that because he appears so laid back on the pitch — so at ease — he does not care enough.
I have interviewed Sturridge twice. I have also interviewed Suarez twice. They were contrasting experiences that dismissed preconceptions I had, perhaps also explaining why the pair did not really get on.
While Suarez — allegedly Lucifer’s incarnate as a player — proved to be polite and actually quite temperate, certainly modest within the confines of an anteroom, Sturridge was similarly a paradox away from his front-line work: the opposite of Suarez but nevertheless friendly.
On the first occasion, Sturridge had not long signed for Liverpool. He made a joke about the state of my woollen jumper. Multi-coloured, it was quite new but it appeared worn. My hair was reasonably long and in all probability, I hadn’t brushed it that morning. He must have wondered why they had dispatched such a scruff.
He was engaging company, however. I liked him. He didn’t allow me to relax, mainly because his answers were different to what I thought I might get. I enjoyed his intensity, his expressiveness, his manner (I forgot my notepad at the end and he called me back) but most of all, his confidence. He possessed an ability to explain himself thoroughly and make you think differently about things.
Interviews, of course, are not always an accurate reflection of a person’s character. Footballers are taught to be guarded against the media. Only those perceptive enough — those willing to think for themselves — figure out it is not one, living organism with its own planetary orbit. There is a system but individuals exist within the system that can be trusted to operate alone.
Footballers are no different. Although it is easier for us to believe otherwise, there are some — like Sturridge — with an independent mind. He is capable of unique thought and just because he earns a ton of money, it does not solve everything.
I had to remind myself of that the second time I met him before Liverpool’s loss to Manchester United last season when it became really apparent just how much of a human being he is. There he was: quiet, brief in his responses — not very engaging at all.
I could have been wearing an erotic lime-dyed mankini and I don’t think he’d have noticed. His answers were delivered quietly in slow monotone. He was in a bad mood. It was as if he’d just received bad news. I expected him not to play at the weekend — maybe he was injured again — maybe he’d had an argument with his girlfriend. But he played. And Liverpool lost.
I thought about our encounter and concluded that Sturridge is an intelligent and emotional man in a largely unemotional profession. In an industry where there are so many braggarts, he is not the type to hide something if an issue is bothering him. Perhaps that unnerves others when it shouldn’t. Maybe it explains why some say he is difficult to manage. You can relate all of that to injuries.
Klopp will not have given up on managing him yet. He’ll probably see him as part of a greater challenge. But he doesn’t seem to be the type of guy that waits around for too long when something isn’t quite working.
It is part of a manager’s job to be flexible, to think of a plan B. Sturridge’s goalscoring record suggests he should be a plan A but his injury record is suggesting he is only physically capable of being an alternative: a plan B or even a C.
This presents a deeper problem for Liverpool because he is the highest-paid player and his contract lasts until 2019. Others who share a dressing room with him — whether they are friends with him or not — will ask for parity if they are playing and contributing when he cannot. It happened with Raheem Sterling. And he plays for Manchester City now.
It is probably for everyone involved: the player, the club and the supporters to finally get realistic about what Sturridge is capable of delivering. Michael Owen was 26 years old when the toll of injuries led to a visible decline in his abilities. Sturridge is now 26.
To improve from here would be to defy other precedents as well as his own biology.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo