‘Currently unfit for Liverpool purpose’ was the pretty damning phrase used by Daniel Storey to describe Daniel Sturridge earlier this week as he documented the Reds’ problems, one of which is the alarming lack of an in-form striker. Note that we say ‘in-form’ rather than ‘fit’, for Sturridge’s problem is no longer one of not taking the field but not taking his chances. If you claim – as Sturridge did in March – that you are “the best striker Liverpool has”, then you simply have to be scoring with more than 8% of your shots.
“I said to him after the game, ‘Now I know what everybody’s talking about’,” said Jurgen Klopp after his first taste of a Sturridge finishing masterclass last season. Forget systems and philosophies, a striker with a 19% conversion rate is a weapon that simply could not be ignored. Sturridge is far from Klopp’s ideal striker, but few managers can afford to wave a dismissive hand in the face of a record of a Premier League goal every 123 minutes of football. This season, that record stands at a goal every 272 minutes; the difference is stark and suggests a player whose confidence is shattered.
Last season, Sturridge could point to those statistics (a 19% conversion rate, a goal every 123 minutes) and challenge Klopp to ignore him when he was fit. Extrapolate those numbers across a 38-game season in which the England striker was available for just 30 of those matches and he would deliver 22 goals. That argument fell apart when he started five of Liverpool’s first eight games this season and failed to make an impact. There were no longer any ‘ifs’ about Sturridge’s fitness but only ‘buts and maybes’ next to the notion that Sturridge is still a striker fit for a team fighting for a Champions League place.
Sturridge’s 90 misfiring minutes against Southampton in the League Cup – his last Liverpool start – have summed up his season: finally, consistently fit (he has been ruled out of only six of 26 Premier League games) but looking like a striker who has simply lost his touch. And when the arch-finisher loses his finish, what else does he offer? He does not have blistering pace, endless energy or intelligent movement to abet his teammates; when he is not scoring, he is a passenger, and passengers are prohibited on Klopp’s freight train.
Whether it is a question of form or formation is a moot point; crucially for Sturridge, it is no longer about fitness. That oddly comforting ‘if only he weren’t made of glass’ caveat has been removed. He has played markedly fewer Premier League minutes than Divock Origi not because he is broken, or simply because the Belgian works harder (though that is a factor), but because Sturridge takes more shots than any other Liverpool player by some distance and yet ten players are converting more of those shots into goals. Origi’s record this season suggests he could take a chance; Sturridge’s screams the opposite.
But then only the machine-like Sergio Aguero and the imaginary Harry Kane have a better minutes-per-goal ratio amongst strikers who have made 50-plus appearances over the last four seasons. Although Sturridge’s statistics are skewed by that magical partnership with Luis Suarez in the first of those four campaigns, last season did suggest a return to form, if not fitness. After a season in which the latter has been markedly easier to find than the former, Sturridge’s stock may bizarrely be higher. Managers have no magic potions for persistent injury problems, but most would back themselves to find the excellent finisher hiding in the shell of a player who has faced three years of whispered and then increasingly shouted questions.
Sturridge’s unsuitability to Klopp’s system renders him a waste of the effort that would be required to either cajole or intensively train him back into form, but another manager with another system not so reliant on hard-running ‘strikers’ will see him as a slightly chipped diamond and very much worth the flowers, chocolates and Moonpig cards that could make him feel special again.
It’s just a shame for Sturridge that Arsene Wenger may not be a Premier League manager next season; if ever a player needed a loyalty that stretches far beyond what is logical…