At the beginning of 2018, Liverpool’s front three picked itself. Such was the individual form and collective impact of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane that, barring injury or suspension, there wouldn’t even be a question as to who would fill the strikers’ roles for the Reds. Of those in reserve, Dominic Solanke and Divock Origi were struggling to convince while a plethora of injuries and a loss of sharpness indicated that the Liverpool career of Daniel Sturridge may have been coming to an end. Indeed, the England international was dispatched on loan to West Brom, who were rock bottom of the Premier League, to get more regular game time, only for further injury to restrict him to a mere two starts in a goalless and unsuccessful stint at The Hawthorns. The statistics didn’t bode well for Sturridge, who some thought might leave Anfield permanently over the summer. However, Jurgen Klopp kept sufficient faith in the marksman to retain his services while allowing Origi to leave on loan yet again. As our tactical analysis shows, Sturridge has looked a man reborn in the early weeks of the season.
In the previous two seasons, he netted just six times in all competitions. In seven appearances so far in 2018/19, he has four goals to his name, and he has only started twice for Liverpool this term. He has accrued 186 minutes on the pitch in that time, equal to two full matches if you allow for the typical allocation of stoppage time, and scored four times. The statistics will show a goal ratio of 0.57 goals per game, but in terms of minutes on the pitch, that figure is akin to two goals per game. At the end of September, he is Liverpool’s joint-top scorer for the season alongside Mane, with Firmino and Salah each netting one fewer. Sturridge has achieved that with two starts; Mane has started all nine of the Reds’ matches, with Salah starting eight and Firmino seven. It isn’t just statistically that Sturridge is impressing, either. A look back at the four goals he has plundered tells the story of a striker who has responded to frequent barbs over his fitness levels by completing the most fundamental part of his job description with highly effective and instinctive regularity.
In Liverpool’s first match of the season, Sturridge came off the bench in the 87th minute with the Reds 3-0 to the good against West Ham and merely seeing out time to complete a winning start to the campaign. He immediately took up a position in the penalty area in preparation for a Liverpool corner to be taken by James Milner. As the image shows, he was half a yard the far side of Ryan Fredericks as the corner was taken, but it was Sturridge who got to the ball first, turning it past Lukasz Fabianski from inside the six-yard box with his first touch of the game.
It was the archetypal poacher’s finish and it showed that, even with very limited game time, he was intent on making it count. He would still have time to register another shot on target, his second in a very brief cameo. Sturridge touched the ball just eight times, but his two penalty box touches both resulted in shots on target.
That goal against the Hammers wasn’t enough to earn him a start, though, in any of Liverpool’s next four games. Indeed, he didn’t feature against either Crystal Palace or Leicester, while he appeared for a total of just 13 minutes against Brighton and Tottenham. An eye injury sustained by Firmino in the win over Spurs at Wembley ruled him out of the starting line-up for the Champions League clash against Paris Saint-Germain, enabling Sturridge to fill the breach. After half an hour of largely Liverpool dominance, the England striker broke the deadlock with another classic poacher’s goal.
It stemmed from PSG’s failure to adequately clear from a preceding attack, the ball finding its way to Andy Robertson on the left. The Scottish defender floated an exquisite cross first-time into the danger zone and Sturridge read it perfectly to direct a header past Alphonse Areola. The image shows that, as against West Ham, his position as the ball was sent into him didn’t seem especially favourable, with Presnel Kimpembe half a yard goal-side of him. However, it was Sturridge who reacted far quicker, nipping behind the French defender to get his head to Robertson’s masterful cross. The England striker had another headed opportunity in the second half, but this one was stopped by Areola from penalty spot range. With Liverpool 2-1 up at the time, it was a real chance squandered by Sturridge, but it did not prove costly after Firmino came off the bench to net an injury time winner.
Sturridge sat out the Reds’ 3-0 stroll against Southampton before being restored to the line-up for the Carabao Cup clash against Chelsea. At the start of the second half, he contrived to miss an open goal that you’d expect someone in a Monday night five-a-side game to convert. Just a few minutes later, though, he made amends by giving Liverpool the lead with a sweet overhead kick, a case of going from the ridiculous to the sublime. It was a goal made possible not just because of Sturridge’s technique, but also his predatory anticipation. As Willy Caballero punched the ball into the sky, it appeared to be dropping back into the danger zone and Sturridge was on his toes to react instantly.
The image shows him rapidly adjusting his body to get into position for his strike while Emerson Palmieri has both eyes figured on the ball. By the time the Chelsea defender has turned, Sturridge is a good two yards away and lining up his shot. Had he even been a half-second slower in beginning his move towards the ball, he would not have been able to take the shot on with such crispness. Unfortunately, his earlier miss would prove crucial, with the Blues coming from behind to win 2-1 and knock Liverpool out at this stage of the competition for the second year running.
Klopp restored his regular front three for the Premier League clash with Chelsea three days later but it was an evening of considerable frustration for the trio, with Salah taken off midway through the second half despite Liverpool trailing 1-0. When Sturridge was brought on with four minutes remaining, it looked like a move of desperation made all too late by the Liverpool manager. Once again, though, the striker made the absolute most of his morsel of game time.
With little over 100 seconds of normal time remaining, Chelsea had the Reds pinned 25 yards from goal, the visitors unable to play through the lines against a resolute Blues rearguard. When the ball was played to Sturridge, he took one touch to control and another to shift the ball onto his left foot. At this point (see image), three options seemed open – slip the ball to Naby Keita ahead of him, wait for N’Golo Kante (circled) to commit himself and try to dribble the ball past him, or take on the three Chelsea players in front of him. What nobody expected was Sturridge to arc the ball into the small gap between Kepa Arrizabalaga’s arm and the crossbar, but that’s exactly what he did to score a sensational equaliser that preserved Liverpool’s unbeaten Premier League record and take them level on points with leaders Manchester City.
The decisive manner in which Sturridge unleashed the shot, allied with the extraordinary technique to pull it off, mark him out as a quality striker. Indeed, the three touches he took in that move were the only three touches he’d have during his eight minutes on the pitch at Stamford Bridge. And how he made them count.
Only a few short months after Sturridge’s time at Liverpool seemed finished and his career looked to be entering a steady decline, the question now must be asked as to whether he is deserving of more regular starts for the Reds. Each member of the iconic front three has had their struggles of late, especially Salah, whose perseverance and desire is far exceeding his luck in front of goal.
Ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Napoli and the crunch showdown with Manchester City on Sunday, Sturridge is entitled to believe that he is worthy of inclusion in the starting XI. Perhaps Firmino, who was very subdued in the draw with Chelsea and who often plays the role of sacrificial lamb to the benefit of his strike partners, could find himself on the bench at the Stadio San Paolo. Let’s not forget that in Liverpool’s last Champions League match, the Brazilian came on to net the winner. He isn’t a half-bad option to have on the bench if Sturridge’s remarkably efficient form is to see him deservedly rewarded with a place in the starting line-up in the next couple of games.