Hari Sethi looks into a difficult season for Daniel Sturridge, and asks whether he can be relied upon to be Liverpool’s main man next season…
Wheeling away to celebrate scoring the winner against Southampton on the opening day of the season, Daniel Sturridge could’ve been forgiven for allowing himself to daydream of the year that lay ahead.
Though Anfield still bore the emotional wounds of last season’s ultimately futile title charge and the departure of the club’s talismanic number seven, for the other half of Liverpool’s prolific ‘SAS’, this was to be a season of opportunity, a season as the main man. Yet with just seven games of their Premier League campaign left and with a top four finish seeming increasingly improbable, Sturridge has made just 11 appearances for the Reds, scoring four goals in the process.
For a player who signed a five year, £150k a week contract in October and the only recognized striker who possesses the physical traits to excel within Rodgers’ desired style of play, things haven’t gone well. This has been a disastrous season for Sturridge and one that casts doubt over his role in the side going forward.
Signing an adequate replacement for Luis Suarez in the summer was always going to be an impossible task for the club’s hierarchy, with Alexis Sanchez’s decision to choose London over Liverpool a bitter pill to swallow. However, the fact that the Reds allowed themselves to deviate so greatly in terms of the style of striker they pursued, is the aspect of their summer transfer activity that deserves the most scrutiny. Rather than identify a forward capable of filling the goal vacuum created by Suarez’s departure, a gamble was seemingly taken on Sturridge to replace the Uruguayan as the main man, with Mario Balotelli brought in as a support striker to compliment his skillset.
For a club who’ve boasted so readily about the importance of statistics in their recruitment process, to gamble on a footballer who’s averaged just 51% of Premier League minutes played over the last 4 seasons is astonishing. Since arriving on Merseyside Sturridge has suffered from 14 separate injuries, predominantly muscular in nature, with a chronic pattern appearing in relation to his thighs.
Whether he can work effectively with the club’s physios to limit these injuries or not, the answer to whether he can be relied upon as Liverpool’s main man going forward is becoming ever clearer.
Moving on from the striker’s struggles with injury, questions remain as to whether Sturridge is suited to playing as a lone striker in the system his manager seemingly prefers.
Liverpool began the season employing a 4231 shape that hindered the creative potential of the players at Rodgers’ disposal and often left Sturridge isolated up top. Goals originated from moments of individual brilliance, rather than the surgical precision of counter attacking moves that fans had grown accustomed to from the previous campaign. Whilst increasingly sharp, without the space afforded to him by defenders’ preoccupation with Suarez, Sturridge became far easier for defenses to stifle, his frustration evident.
It was only when Balotelli made his first appearance against Tottenham, that Rodgers deviated from the inhibiting shape, opting instead for a 4-4-2 diamond that took full advantage of the pace and direct nature of their attacking talent. Though susceptible defensively, as they were in the previous season, Liverpool’s performance and more notably the impact of the team’s two strikers, suggested this could be a shape to persevere with.
However, with Sturridge suffering an injury soon after, any hopes of a prolonged look at this new duo were dashed before they’d begun, rigidity resumed and Liverpool went on a torrid run where their lack of mobile striking options cost them dearly.
Whilst Rodgers’ belated decision to use a back three saw Liverpool go on a previously unthinkable sequence of 13 games unbeaten, this resurgence was largely built on their improved defensive performances and a revitalized Simon Mignolet.
The Liverpool manager compensated for the lack of a senior striker he deemed appropriate by using Sterling as a makeshift forward, yet his side have only managed to create around two clear cut chances per game since switching to this new formation. Though world-class strikes from the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson have helped the Reds to key wins in recent weeks, the consistent lack of penetration is a problem that seems deeper than a case of current personnel. Sturridge’s return has failed to ‘light up’ the 3-4-3 system in the manner the manager had hoped for, with mental hang-ups over his temperamental body and an understandable lack of sharpness, clear for all to see.
The explosive speed that enabled Sturridge to get away from defenders has seldom been seen this season and despite the relative strengths of the new system, the striker continues to look isolated up front and largely ineffectual.
Whether his injury is the sole reason for such lacklustre performances, or rather that the system is merely exacerbating his rustiness, the lack of clarity regarding what style of side Rodgers’ Liverpool are, certainly doesn’t help matters.
Last season they blew teams away with explosive starts exemplified by their aggressive pressing and an emphasis on quick counter attacking transitions. Whilst able at times to be considered in possession their approach was notably direct and though this can be argued to have led to their eventual downfall, it was an effective approach against most sides below them in the league.
Without Sturridge Rodgers sort to take a more cautious approach, yet such a brand of football was largely incongruous to the players asked to implement it. The solidity of the 3-4-3 saw Liverpool go on their best run of the season, however, it has simultaneously seen them lack the attacking threat to challenge effectively for the top four.
For Sturridge to thrive once again it’s likely that Rodgers will have to return to an emphasis on fast transitions and ensure that he is either given a strike partner to ease his workload or closely supported by Sterling and Coutinho.
Judging from Rodgers’ reluctance to use Balotelli alongside (or just off) Sturridge this season, it now seems inevitable that the Reds will look to secure a suitable striker in the summer, one able to give their attack some of the potency lost with Suarez’s departure.
A full pre-season and medical MOT could well see Sturridge return to the prolific form of Liverpool’s 13/14 campaign, but given his increased fragility and lack of impact as the sole striker, Rodgers must ensure that he find his talented forward a partner to dance with.