Over the past few months, Daniel Sturridge has taken every opportunity that’s fallen his way. He did it in preseason, turning heads while his more popular teammates recovered from the World Cup, and he did it Tuesday with a rare appearance in the Champions League.
It was his first Champions League start in 2,379 days, and he made it count with a fine header against Paris Saint-Germain. He wasn’t the most active player on the pitch, but he didn’t have to be. Sturridge found himself in dangerous positions, stretched the lines, and kept PSG’s defenders on their toes. He was the reference point for Liverpool’s attack.
Jurgen Klopp defined a role for Sturridge in the summer when it was largely assumed the 28-year-old would leave the club for good. The manager resisted several calls to sell the striker, instead calling him an “outstanding” player who simply needs to stay fit.
It was a curious pet project to undertake. For a manager who demands pressing and maximum physical exertion, Klopp took a flexible and compassionate approach to Sturridge, allowing him to carry out his own specially-tailored training regimen. Klopp didn’t expect him to be the most physical or athletic player, nor would it be possible after so many years on the treatment table. Sturridge suffered virtually every injury a player can possibly have, missing a reported 567 days of action since January 2013.
“Does he have to play 50-something games? No,” Klopp said in July, according to BBC Sport’s Simon Stone. “But hopefully he will play a few really good ones. That is the plan.”
Sturridge ended up scoring six goals in nine preseason appearances, and Klopp’s bet was further vindicated Tuesday. Sturridge was forced into the lineup following an eye injury to Roberto Firmino and constantly tested PSG’s backline. He could’ve scored a second goal with a little more match sharpness, but his effort was enough to earn a standing ovation from Anfield in the 70th minute.
Although he seems like an odd fit – more of a poacher in an otherwise fast-paced, fluid system – Sturridge could become an important Plan B for Liverpool this season. He can offer a more direct route to goal when matches become chess games and force defenders to stay back. There’s no way Sturridge will unseat Roberto Firmino in the club’s starting XI, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have an impact. Sturridge can get on the end of crosses, just as he did Tuesday when Andy Robertson delivered one of his many delectable balls.
“Daniel played a super game,” Klopp told BT Sport’s Des Kelly. “I told him before the game I have never seen him as fit as he is in the moment. He used that fitness. He was all over the park. He helped left and right, he was in the box when he was needed.”
There have been times when Liverpool struggled to break down banks of four, and when that happens again, Sturridge has the skills to find a way through. He doesn’t have to press and drop deep – even though that’s something he’s happy to do – but arrive in the penalty area when it counts. There’s value in his simplicity.
Sturridge shouldn’t feel too perturbed about the diminished role. If anything, it’s provided the parameters to ensure he stays in shape. Considering the Reds are a threat in multiple competitions, Klopp has an obligation to rotate his players, and Sturridge is an important reinforcement to have. Klopp doesn’t really want anyone making upwards of 50 appearances this season, and a player like Sturridge will mitigate the workload.
He could’ve spent the final 12 months of his Liverpool contract on loan, out of mind and out of the limelight, but Klopp made sure Sturridge wouldn’t again slip into obscurity. So far, he’s responded in kind.