As Liverpool slipped towards the first Premier League defeat of the season against Chelsea, up stepped last season’s forgotten man to salvage a point. With his first touch of the game from the substitutes’ bench, striker Daniel Sturridge unleashed an unstoppable strike into the top corner and sent his team back to Merseyside with a valuable point.
When talking about Sturridge, one often tends to focus on the many injuries he has succumbed to during his career, hampering his progress for both club and country. His talent his undoubtable though. His record of 50 league goals in 103 appearances for Liverpool is remarkable, with his 21 finishes during the 2013-14 campaign being the best return of his career. Yet, all too often, he finds himself sat on the side-line with an injury.
Just nine matches into the new season and a cautious optimism for the Englishman has returned. Mostly arriving off the bench, Sturridge has aided Liverpool’s early season strength with 4 goals, including the first against Paris Saint-Germain in the opening Champions League game. His goals have ranged from a poacher’s effort against West Ham on the opening day, an opportunistic header in the PSG game to the wonder goal against Chelsea.
Inevitably, Mo Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino will receive the most press attention as the players in Liverpool’s dynamic forward line. Having fired Liverpool to unexpected heights last season, these three can cause any team problems. Starting every week and being the players who will score the goals on a consistent basis, the attacking trio will always be the headline, but Sturridge is perhaps the key to Liverpool’s run towards both Premier League and Champions League glory this season.
Back in the 2008/09 season and under the managerial reign of Rafa Benitez, Liverpool went on an unlikely run towards the title, ultimately finishing four points behind Manchester United despite only losing twice. It was a side led by captain Steven Gerrard, the finishing of Fernando Torres, and the work ethic of Dirk Kuyt. Between the three, there were 42 league goals. The rest of the squad combined for 23.
A similar pattern emerged in the 2013/14 near miss, with Gerrard, Luis Suárez, Sturridge and Raheem Sterling combing for 74 goals, while the rest of the team managed just 31 goals, finishing just two points behind Champions Manchester City. Liverpool became the first team to not win the league after scoring 100 goals and games like the 0-2 defeat to Chelsea is what made it harder for Liverpool to win the league. This could have been different with quality from the bench. Iago Aspas was the player brought on, and his corner has become the stuff of legend.
If either of these sides had a player of Sturridge’s quality to come off the bench to change crucial matches, then Premier League table in those seasons might have looked different. All successful sides have a player of this type, one who does not play every week but plays an important role. Manchester United have utilised Ole Gunnar Solksjær and Javier Hernandez in the super sub role, and once had Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez rotating between starts. Arsenal had Dennis Bergkamp and Sylvain Wiltord in 2001/02, Chelsea used Mateja Kežman and Eiᵭur Guᵭjohnsen in 2004/05, and Edin Džeko and Mario Balotelli were utilised from the bench for Manchester City’s first Premier League title in 2011/12.
It appears that the man who was destined to be leaving Merseyside over the summer has forced his way back into Jürgen Klopp’s plans and has bought into the ethos being developed at Anfield. His entry into the game with just four minutes remaining was a last throw of the dice from Klopp, but his role was slightly deeper than that of his usual preference.
His goal was created from him dropping slightly deeper, in an attacking midfield role, and exploiting the tiredness of the Chelsea midfield in order to let his shot go. It is a role that Liverpool attempted to fill by pursuing Lyon’s Nabil Fekir, after the departure of Philippe Coutinho, but Sturridge had also experimented in this role during the pre-season. It may well be the ideal role for his current skill-set.
If Sturridge can reinvent himself as a second striker, his impact for Liverpool could propel them towards titles. With Mané and Salah creating havoc and requiring constant attention from opponent defenders, Firmino pressing the defenders into mistakes and tracking back deeper than the average centre forward, the space is left behind opposition defenders. Having Sturridge, even with his slower pace than that of his early career, bursting through the lines late in games could prove a deadly weapon for one of Europe’s deadliest attacking forces.
If fitness could be guaranteed, Sturridge has the ability to be a starting striker in nearly every Premier League team. It is often suggested that he is the most naturally talented English striker currently. A healthy Sturridge, one who has bought into the system that Klopp has implemented at Liverpool, is a dangerous prospect for any opposition team and perhaps holds the key to Liverpool’s run at Premier League and Champions League success.
Sturridge may not be likely to start vast numbers of games for Liverpool when everyone is available, but his impact from the bench may turn out to be the difference between Liverpool’s successes or failures, and there is the potential for another season of the dancing striker at his best to admire.