Originally published on Premier Punditry.
Forget the premature reports of Liverpool Football Club’s demise — the sort of reports my fellow contributors, and a good deal of Premier League pundits out there at large, are all too willing to revel in. Liverpool will persevere as it always has; whatever the current travails on the pitch, they are nothing we won’t overcome, because this is a massive club that has success ingrained in its very fiber. Doomsayers can doom-say all they want; we survived Hicks and Gillett and the Roy Hodgson era. We can cope with a 0-3 defeat at home to the champions of Europe.
At the same time, it’s undeniable that Liverpool’s standard of play this season has yet to come anywhere near what we saw last year — when the club scored the third-most goals ever in a Premier League campaign (101) and bagged more away from home (48) than any team in EPL history. That output was driven by the two men who spearheaded Liverpool’s astonishing attack; whose dominance led to them becoming the first teammates to ever finish first and second in the Premier League scoring chart.
One of them, the incomparable Luis Suarez, is now gone, tasked with adapting to a superteam that isn’t tailored to his very essence as a footballer. This piece isn’t about him. It’s about the other player; the one who finished second in that EPL scoring chart, the one who’s staying in Liverpool for the long haul, and the one whose absence from the squad has been widely attributed to the club’s current lackluster performance.
Because while Steven Gerrard was, and remains, the beating heart of Liverpool, and Luis Suarez was the reptilian brain that relentlessly drove the team on at all costs last year in the pursuit of victory, the soul of Liverpool Football Club — the player who most exemplified the youthful exuberance and devil-may-care attitude of the team’s free-flowing, virtually unstoppable football last season — is none other than Daniel Sturridge. And if Liverpool are going to get anywhere near that thrilling standard of play set last season — a standard that has been accepted in many circles of the fan base as the new norm — they desperately need Sturridge back on the field.
Now, this has been an oft-repeated sentiment so far this season, and justifiably so; Sturridge is almost certainly the most physically talented player at the club, one whose magnificent blend of pace, agility and balance makes him virtually unstoppable on the turn. He’s also an imposing athlete; 6’2” and strong, with both the presence and tactical awareness to hold the ball up and bring his teammates into play. The most underrated facet of his game, however, is what he brings technically. With the exception of the indomitable Gerrard and possibly Philippe Coutinho, his technique on the ball is unsurpassed at Liverpool. Anyone who thinks he’s merely another Michael Owen or Fernando Torres — players whose footballing talents were inextricably linked to their explosive pace — should recall how he almost defied physics on a rainy January night in Stoke and effortlessly chipped Tim Howard at Anfield two weeks later.
But physical and technical ability aside, there are intangibles that need to be taken into consideration when discussing Sturridge. There’s the relentless movement — calm and measured off the ball, waiting for the moment his team wins the ball back before springing into transition and making himself available for the killer pass. There’s the hunger to constantly improve; the understanding that, though he’s established himself as one of the the elite strikers in European football, this is “literally just the beginning” in terms of what he can achieve. And there’s the personality; the swagger, the levity, the infectious exuberance of a young man enjoying his football because he knows he’s boss.
This last point cannot be underestimated. Liverpool last season were, for all intensive purposes, a confidence team. That’s not to say they didn’t have quality, but the fact remains that the club came within three points of the Premier League title with essentially 16 available first-team players whom the manager was actually willing to field. The majestic, exhilarating, ultimately heartbreaking journey that was Liverpool Football Club’s 2013-14 Premier League season would never have happened without a collective understanding within the group that the team, for all its shortcomings, was boss at football. Not just merely good — boss, featuring a couple of world-class players who could will the team to victory against anyone and, when the team wasn’t firing on all cylinders, do the business and simply outscore the opponent into oblivion. With the exception of the cardiac arrest-inducing style of play implemented by the manager, the sheer quality offered by Suarez and Sturridge at the top of the field was arguably the most vital part of this collective understanding. And yet, one of those guys hasn’t been a Liverpool players for months and the other has played only 270 minutes of football this season.
That is why Liverpool fans who closely followed the club’s magical run-in last season were so furious at Roy Hodgson when he ignored all rational physiological advice and made Sturridge train to the point of breaking down last month. For all Sturridge’s downplaying of being the “main man” at the club with Suarez’s departure, we knew that we would need our best player available as often as possible if we were to compensate for the loss of one of the world’s three best. Losing Suarez to Barcelona or Real Madrid was always going to be a possibility; also losing Sturridge for long stretches of the season was something to be avoided at all costs. Considering Liverpool were also in the process of bedding in eight new players and adjusting to a relentless schedule of European and domestic fixtures, retaining as much of what worked for us last season would be critical. In Sturridge’s absence, that just hasn’t been possible.
As a fan, this has been particularly frustrating in wake of Mario Balotelli’s unfortunate start to his Liverpool career. Forget the talk of Mario not working hard enough off the ball; the insistence that he should press like Luis Suarez or constantly be searching for runs behind the defensive line like Raheem Sterling. Go back and watch the 0-3 pummeling of Spurs at White Hart Lane in late August. It was Mario’s first match for Liverpool, and Brendan Rodgers fielded him alongside Sturridge in a 4-4-2 diamond, with Sterling tucked in behind at the tip of the midfield. Watch how Liverpool imposed themselves on the contest from the front of the pitch; how the three attackers, backed by Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen, squeezed the life out of Spurs every time they tried to play some stuff of their own. Watch the fluidity of Liverpool’s transitions into attack; the nascent understanding being forged between the two imposing, world-class strikers as Sterling, Henderson, Allen, and Alberto Moreno kept running beyond, presenting them with options.
It was the performance of a group that was collectively backing itself; one that understood the talent at its disposal and played its football with no fear. There was belief, there was guile, and there was swagger — all intangibles that, in Daniel Sturridge’s absence, have been all too lacking within the squad. Without him, we’ve played like a team without a soul. And until we get him back, there’s no telling how this season plays out for Liverpool.