Daniel Sturridge wants to return to the Premier League. Someone will take a gamble on the man who is arguably the most talented English striker of his generation. This is the last chance for a player who has left a trail of disappointment behind him.
Sturridge will be 31 next month but has less miles on the clock than might be expected of someone nearing veteran status. Only once has he featured in more than 30 Premier League games in a season – 36 for Liverpool in 2018-19 but 28 of those appearances came from the bench. He finished that campaign by picking up his second Champions League winners’ medal when Jurgen Klopp’s team beat Tottenham Hotspur. Sturridge was an unused substitute in Madrid, as he was in 2012 for Chelsea’s triumph over Bayern Munich. This is an allegory for his career. He has always seemed on the fringe of greatness.
In terms of pure ability, Sturridge was exceptional at his peak. His touch, movement and pace frightened defenders. In front of goal he was clinical and had the knack of hitting the ball early with surprising precision.
Fenway Sports Group (FSG), Liverpool’s owners, saw the forward as a future Kop hero. To use American terms, FSG believed he was their “franchise player.” John W Henry, the principal owner, once described Sturridge as “the most intelligent athlete I’ve met.”
Things did not work out as planned. Keeping the putative Anfield talisman on the pitch proved problematic. Injuries have blighted his career but suggestions that he was not willing to play through minor niggles hurt his reputation even more.
The accusations were, to a large extent, unfair. Sturridge performs at his best when his mind and body are in sync. Speedy forwards struggle with the thought that the next time they break into a sprint something might pop. The fear of a damaged hamstring can sometimes hold them back. Michael Owen talks articulately about how nagging doubts affected his mentality and the way he played after his first significant injury in 1999.
Sturridge spoke about how he was predisposed to problems because of an abundance of fast-twitch fibres in his muscles. He attributed this to his West Indian heritage: “Caribbean vibes,” he called it.
The striker’s best season was 2013-14, when Liverpool made an unlikely charge for the title that fell just short. It was not Sturridge who assumed superstar status in Brendan Rodgers’ team, however. Luis Suarez became the central figure and leading goalscorer. The two men did not get along. Some around Anfield believed that Sturridge’s only 20-goal league season was driven by a desire to outdo his team-mate that overrode his fitness concerns.
Suarez was soon gone but Sturridge could not fill the void. Liverpool went to great lengths to solve his injury issues but were unable to get to the core of the problem despite sending him to specialists in the United States. There were whispers around the club that the England forward was overindulged and benefited from FSG’s favouritism.
For a considerable time he was Anfield’s highest-paid player. Younger, more robust colleagues like Raheem Sterling wondered why they were on lesser wages while performing week-in, week-out while Sturridge was pocketing more cash even though he spent so much time in the treatment room.
Can Sturridge change perceptions? He is raring to go after serving a four-month ban for breaching the FA’s gambling rules. After leaving Trabzonspor in March he is ready to return to England and his free agent status means someone is bound to take a punt. In the economic environment created by Covid-19, Sturridge is a relatively cheap option for those whose transfer budget is minimal. Even taking into account his issues with injuries, the striker has scored 105 goals in 306 appearances in English football for Manchester City, Chelsea, Bolton Wanderers, Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion. There are plenty of strikers out there who would envy that record.
A fit, focused Sturridge could be a revelation. His speed has faded a little but that could work in his favour. Explosiveness comes with a risk. The more considered approach of a thirtysomething could mean less injuries.
Sturridge still has plenty to offer. He never reached the heights his talent deserved but he can end his playing days on an upbeat note.