In 2013-14 Daniel Sturridge was the second top scorer in the Premier League and England’s first-choice striker at the World Cup, but three seasons later he finds himself at a crossroads in his career.
Remarkably, Sturridge has played only 222 Premier League minutes more in those three seasons combined than he did under Brendan Rodgers in 2013-14, when he scored 21 goals in 26 league starts alongside Luis Suarez as the Reds came so close to winning the title.
Last season he completed 90 minutes just three times, all in the League Cup, and made only seven starts in the league, two of which came in the final two games of the season.
He made an impact in both as Liverpool scored seven without reply against West Ham and Middlesbrough to secure the final Champions League spot ahead of Arsenal, but it remains to be seen whether that will be enough in either his or Jurgen Klopp’s eyes to ensure he will still be at Anfield come the end of the summer.
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Going into those final throws of the season it seemed almost certain Sturridge would leave. He had started only one Premier League match since October 2016, against struggling Sunderland, and not just because he had suffered another campaign of persistent injuries.
There were times when Sturridge was available for selection but still left kicking his heels, with Jurgen Klopp preferring to use the more interchangeable trio of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane in attack.
“He hasn’t been having the impact that he was having previously, whether that’s down to his injuries or down to his match sharpness,” says former Liverpool striker Paul Walsh.
“I’ve got a feeling that he doesn’t totally trust his body to play up against defences anymore, he’s looking to get the ball in cheaper areas where he isn’t quite as effective.
“On his day, he was absolutely phenomenal: quick feet, sharp turn, give it and go, goal. But now I find that he drifts into deeper areas and wider areas to pick the ball up.
“Whether that’s because he has had to find another way of playing because of his body, only he would really know that.
“But when you see someone has changed their game and they have had a load of injuries, you start to make assumptions as to why.”
Walsh can certainly empathise with Sturridge’s situation of losing his place through injury. In the second of his four seasons at Anfield, Walsh enjoyed a scoring run of nine goals in 18 league games until he was injured by a tackle from Manchester United’s Kevin Moran.
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He missed several months, and when he returned he struggled to regain his form, the manager’s confidence, and his scoring touch.
“I can’t describe how gutted, fed-up and depressed I was, it was one of the two worst moments in my football life.
“No-one had too much time for you when you were off. It was a tactic that they openly employed, and you became a bit of an outcast.
“It was done to totally discourage you from being injured, but if you’re proper injured you are proper injured.
“That’s the type of tough mentality they were creating. I understand what they were trying to do, but it became ridiculous to the extreme.”
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That bootroom culture has long since been replaced at Liverpool, but Klopp has commented on Sturridge’s mental attitude in the past, once suggesting he must learn “what is serious pain and what is only pain”.
However, in the final month of the season Klopp described Sturridge as a “fantastic striker” and “wonderful option to have” when fit. It’s certainly not that he doesn’t rate the 27-year-old.
“I think if Sturridge had a more fitter body, then he would play in the way of Klopp,” says another former Liverpool forward, Erik Meijer, who played for Reds between 1999 and 2001. “I think he would fit in.
“But he is mostly injured or his body is not strong enough to play in the system that Klopp asks, with super-fit players who can run for two hours. Who are technically on a very high level and who are willing to put their own thing aside and just focus on the team.
“That last part is something that Sturridge is not always doing. He is selfish.”
Sturridge is the second highest earner at Liverpool, behind only Coutinho, and would likely command a fee in excess of £20million should the Reds look to move him on this summer.
Jamie Carragher was among those to suggest they should do exactly that, but Sturridge challenged his former team-mate on that point on an official Liverpool trip to Sydney at the end of the season, suggesting he is not ready to throw the towel in on his Anfield career just yet.
“He didn’t come across like a player who was looking to get out, I have to say that!” Carragher said.
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Sturridge will be wary of another season spent largely on the sidelines ahead of the World Cup next summer, but the club’s return to the Champions League should mean more opportunities, providing he can stay fit.
He will also no doubt be keen for another crack at the competition, knowing he is unlikely to find another team in the Champions League should he push for a move.
Furthermore, while the prospect of selling a regular substitute for £20-£25million sounds appealing, Klopp will know there are few strikers of the same level he could bring in for a similar price in return.
Sturridge’s ability to play out wide as well as through the middle will also be useful as Liverpool look to compete on four fronts, and though questioning the effect injuries may have had on him, Walsh certainly doesn’t believe the former Chelsea man is a lost cause, as appeared to be the case with another Liverpool No.9.
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“Fernando Torres totally lost his form and his confidence,” Walsh says. “He wasn’t a naturally gifted footballer, so when his confidence was on his highest level he could do absolutely everything, but when he was on his lowest level his touch was actually quite poor.
“Sturridge still looks good on the ball, even though he isn’t contributing much.”
Once again, pre-season will prove crucial in determining whether Sturridge can get back to his previous best, whether that be at Liverpool or elsewhere.
“First, he has to get into a normal rhythm again and if that’s not at Liverpool, then I hope he can do it somewhere else because he has quality,” adds Meijer.
“He has shown that before, he really does have quality. But he has to get his body under control otherwise he won’t play that many matches anymore.”
By Paul Wilkes
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