THERE were numerous positives to take from Liverpool’s 3-2 victory against Leicester City.
It was an utterly chaotic encounter which put an end to a fairly grim couple of weeks for Jürgen Klopp’s side. Defensive concerns remain, of course, but the sense of relief when the full-time whistle blew was immense.
It felt like a potential turning point in the season. Anything but victory would have seen a minor slump in form descend towards a full-blown crisis. It was an almighty scrap in the second half, but Liverpool got the job done and it feels like a huge weight has been lifted off everyone’s shoulders.
We saw something getting towards the full version of an in-form Philippe Coutinho, with a splendid assist followed by an immaculate strike to put Liverpool in the driving seat in the first half, demonstrating exactly why Fenway Sports Group were absolutely right to hold firm in their stance to keep hold of the Brazilian and resist the pressure to sell to Barcelona.
After a slow start to the season, Jordan Henderson stepped up and delivered a magnificent captain’s performance, snapping into tackles, driving his team forward and keeping his composure superbly to notch what turned out to be the winning goal.
It was the introduction of Daniel Sturridge, however, in place of the subdued Roberto Firmino, for the final half hour, which proved to be a decisive moment in the contest at a point when Leicester had their tails up and the momentum was shifting towards the home side. Substitutions have not always been a strong point for Klopp during his time at the club, but on this occasion, his decision to introduce Sturridge was spot on.
It’s easy to take for granted having a player of Sturridge’s quality available to bring on against tired legs and he instantly changed the complexion of Liverpool’s attack the moment he stepped on the pitch. This is not the razor-sharp Sturridge of three or four years ago, playing on the shoulder of the last defender. This is a player who has adapted his game to become a hugely effective option for the way Klopp likes his team to play.
There have long been questions around Sturridge’s suitability for a high intensity, counter-pressing style of football and it wasn’t so long ago that it seemed as though he was nearing the end of the road at Liverpool, finding himself behind both Firmino and Divock Origi in the pecking order. Persistent knocks and niggles prevented him from gaining any kind of consistent rhythm.
Yet his contribution to help see Liverpool over the line and secure a top-four finish last season — most notably with his goal and all-round performance against West Ham in the penultimate game — was pivotal. There wasn’t even a mere murmur of him leaving during the summer transfer window and Klopp has since revealed that he has never once considered selling Sturridge, such is his importance to Liverpool.
The German said on the striker’s future: “It was not a talk with him saying: ‘When can I go?’ or ‘where can I go?’. Not that talk, but about what we planned for this season.
“Daniel is important, not could be, he is important. We decided not to take him to Leicester (in the League Cup) and that was again a kind of responsible decision.
“Now he’s in the best moment. He’s always getting better because he can train all the time.”
Against Leicester on Saturday, Sturridge showed exactly why he remains an absolutely key part of Klopp’s squad. Despite a reputation for selfishness throughout his career, Sturridge showed himself to be the ultimate team player and constantly dropped deep to link play and retain possession when Liverpool needed a cool head in a frenetic situation.
Sturridge would find pockets of space to make himself available and either find a teammate or dribble past several opponents with his superb close control and leave defenders in his wake (he completed all three of his attempted take ons). On one occasion, he very nearly curled the ball into the top corner from 20 yards, before testing Kasper Schmeichel with another swerving strike from long range.
His most telling moment came when he created Henderson’s winner, biding his time before picking the perfect pass when so many players would have rushed and fluffed their lines. Sturridge was ice cool and timed his pass to perfection, assisting the winning goal when he could so easily have opted to shoot himself.
It was a cameo of the highest class, demonstrating exceptional skill, awareness and crucial experience to provide that edge to help deliver the three points. While the accumulated impact of injuries over the years has undoubtedly taken away his lightning quick acceleration and explosive edge of old, Sturridge has adapted his game to remain hugely effective, even as his pace has diminished.
Although he isn’t necessarily a nailed-on starter when everyone is fit and available, Sturridge is still an integral part of the squad and often the first player Klopp calls upon when he needs to rotate or make a substitution.
At the age of 28, he’s one of the senior pros in this relatively youthful Liverpool squad and apart from Henderson (and Jon Flanagan, if you want to include him), he’s been at the club longer than any other player in the current crop. Liverpool lost an influential figure in Lucas Leiva this summer, but it feels like Sturridge is perfectly suited to taking up that position of seniority in the dressing room. You get the sense he’s very well liked and respected by his teammates — someone they all respect and gain confidence from when he’s on the pitch.
There’s a strong case to argue he deserves to start on Tuesday night against Spartak Moscow, having been rested for the League Cup tie last week and given how sharp he looked on Saturday. If not, he’s an ideal option to start against Newcastle next weekend.
While there’s always a possibility that the next muscle strain is just around the corner, Klopp seems to have found a way to manage Sturridge’s fitness more effectively and have him fit and available far more often.
As an outstanding footballer with his wealth of experience, we’re seeing the evolution of Sturridge into a highly intelligent and complete team player who has found a way to ensure he remains a hugely valuable asset for Liverpool.
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