IS it time, yet again, to reprise our thinking on Daniel Sturridge? There were plenty of positives that came from Tuesday’s FA Cup exit at West Ham — none more so than the striker’s 60-minute cameo from the bench.
Sturridge’s unreliability is well-documented and the conundrum remains as difficult as ever to resolve. There are no guarantees that his newly-found fitness will persist but the level of his performance begs the question: How does Jürgen Klopp maximise his key asset between now and the end of the season?
Football is a results game and if Sturridge can help get him wins, Klopp should be inclined to squeeze every last drop from a Liverpool player who so far has offered him no more than nuisance value.
It is too simple to accept that we just cash in our chips and cut our losses on a player who has been largely unavailable for a season-and-a-half. If Klopp wants to sell, then who are the takers? And what is the market value for a player whose injury record goes before him?
Even if a frustrated, perplexed manager is dead set on moving him on, or as reported recently by some that the player wants out, Klopp can still use Sturridge in establishing a platform for his own success beyond this campaign. It is hard to imagine the manager wouldn’t want him in the starting line-up against Manchester City at Wembley in a fortnight’s time.
To say there is ambiguity on Klopp’s view of Sturridge’s ongoing travails is an understatement.
The manager admits he knows little of the striker’s quality at first hand, notwithstanding the brace of goals at Southampton and a further glimpse of his excellence the other night.
From the outside looking in, as we construe the non-committal fitness updates, it seems the manager shares a long-held mistrust of the player’s mentality with regard to fitness. If there is any clarity, it is that Klopp demands of Sturridge consistent training before he gives him an extended opportunity to demonstrate his worth. Fair enough.
In the eyes of the fans, too, the majority seem to have given up on him already — suspicion growing with each setback and each report of niggle after niggle. To an extent, Sturridge is caught up in the desire to write off all of the previous manager’s signings, such was the overall paucity of our recruitment under the last regime. Fans also want to move on from the painful dying embers of 2013/14.
The cynicism towards the player has grown with every glimpse of him lording it in his executive box; looking on while lesser talents at least attempt to earn their corn. If Sturridge has faith in God, it’s a trust not universally shared by Liverpudlians in this footballer. Harsh but true.
As ever though, when Sturridge gets on to the field of play, it is all too tempting for us to revise our opinion. Klopp, when reminded of his ability, will be similarly wooed.
When he came on at Upton Park, it was as though a light had been switched on; one which could yet illuminate Liverpool’s season. The Reds’ patchwork team had done well; they had competed and matched a stronger West Ham blow for blow. Sturridge though instantly looked the best player on the pitch and within five minutes Liverpool grew increasingly potent and dangerous.
All season we’ve seen honest endeavour amount to very little. We’ve watched an improved work ethic add little to our attacking threat. We’ve seen Emre Can chug along in midfield, putting in stint after stint; his hangdog expression betraying a lack of enjoyment.
We’ve watched the once-imaginative Adam Lallana resemble an obedient Labrador forever chasing an imaginary stick. We’ve witnessed a lame Jordan Henderson dutifully doing his shuttles in pain to little effect. All three players mentioned are good honest footballers with only half of Sturridge’s talent; players who put in the hard yards but only excel in the presence of better footballers.
Sturridge was immediately full of inspiration with only the merest hint of a lack of match sharpness. Suddenly defenders were backing off, retreating in fear as he started running at goal.
One mazy dribble took out three players; another purposeful run ended with a rapier shot announced with zero backlift. From deep, there were insightful reverse passes aplenty stretching the Londoners’ rearguard. As the Reds began to probe down the flanks, with Brad Smith and Jon Flanagan augmenting the attack, Daniel was making near-post runs; a goalscorer’s stock in trade. It was like he had never been away.
If you’re only as good as your last game, Sturridge is still very good — sufficiently exceptional to make allowances conceded only to special players.
It is still a big if, but IF, by some miracle, his body has suddenly hardened or, if you prefer, his resolve and determination improved by a sterner approach and tougher sessions behind the scenes, Liverpool could suddenly be a different proposition.
An endlessly stuttering, impotent unit could easily be transformed into a team carrying a threat on the counter, and imagination when enjoying the lion’s share of possession.
Sturridge’s impact on other players was palpable. Christian Benteke, some glaring misses aside, suddenly looked more mobile. Deferring to Sturridge while his confidence remains in tatters, there were signs of a partnership that showed Benteke in a more positive light.
The Belgian looked capable at least of offering an effective foil, while still currently striving for anything approaching top form. The notion of an improving Roberto Firmino and a recovering Philippe Coutinho finally operating in more natural, midfield roles behind two strikers is an exciting, almost revolutionary prospect against the backdrop of the last 18 months.
Klopp can’t guarantee Sturridge will be fit every week but he can do his best to manage him effectively over the coming three months. In the first instance, he can manage his quota of games as the striker seeks to prove a more lasting influence. More time on the training ground and extension of the apparent “pre-season” that has brought him to a modicum of fitness will now be feasible as the fixture list eases. If it is time for Sturridge to buckle down, then equally it is Klopp’s responsibility to give him a clean slate and assess his worth on what he sees from here on in.
Part of the challenge will be managing the relationship between the two.
Bill Shankly refused to even speak with injured players, but things have changed. The constant badgering of Klopp for updates on Sturridge’s health has been a visible annoyance to the German. Rumours hint that Sturridge isn’t happy at the way he is being portrayed, if not by the manager, through briefings issued by the club.
With Klopp previously countering Sturridge’s claims on social media that he was fit, it is inevitable that some tensions will exist. Klopp’s challenge is to use any angst to fire up the player and get him on the pitch with a point to prove. It wouldn’t be the first time a manager has used disharmony to good effect.
Klopp might even consider using reverse psychology by fostering any issues that exist between them and still putting him on the team sheet. There will be more to Klopp’s man-management than a beaming smile and an arm round the shoulder. In the case of Sturridge, perhaps creating a mutually beneficial stand-off has been the intention all along; to facilitate a medium-term exit strategy.
Games and goals between now and May will restore some of Sturridge’s market value and give both sides a bargaining position to assess all options fairly at the end of the season. Klopp the pragmatist will then be looking to decide between a last hurrah and a stay of execution — if Sturridge can stay fit.
There, we’ve said it again.
In the meantime, an extended glimpse of the Daniel Sturridge we saw on Tuesday could put an entirely different slant on Liverpool’s season.