Daniel Sturridge is exhausting Liverpool's patience, and his absence is killing the team
Liverpool’s defeat to Leicester is the latest example of Jurgen Klopp heading into a gunfight against one of the quickest draws in the west armed with only a pocket knife.
Jamie Vardy has no cause to look for the goal while Liverpool’s attackers play like they’re being guided by a faulty sat-nav. Jurgen Klopp’s Premier League season has now entered damage limitation, with Liverpool in serious danger of finishing in their lowest ever Premier League position.
The only hope of salvaging a respectable place in their last 14 games is the latest attempted return of the one player at their disposal who can turn defeats to draws, draws to victories, but it is a slim hope Daniel Sturridge will feature in the majority of games between now and May. It’s rather like waiting for Superman to come to the rescue, only to realise he is incapable of getting out of the phone box.
Sturridge is due to train with the rest of the team on Wednesday, but discussing the prolonged absenteeism of the England striker often feels like ballet dancing on eggshells.
Each update seems so carefully worded, as if a room of Harvard professors have convened to ensure each full-stop is in the right place for fear of misinterpretation or litigation.
What is not in dispute is a pitiful appearance record that has halted Sturridge’s career and had a debilitating effect on Liverpool’s forward line. Over the course of his three years he has been available for 45 per cent of matches, the catalogue of injuries is as prolific as his strike rate. Beyond those muscle strains, there are numerous other ailments that have been known to occupy the time of anyone walking around Melwood with medical expertise.
A footballer’s peak years are supposed to be between 24-27. Sturridge has already missed two of those. To Liverpool, he is currently nothing more than an expensive patient and the despair and sense of annoyance is far more palpable privately than has ever been stated publicly.
The key question in all this is whether Sturridge is ruling himself out of games or whether he is suffering personal turmoil as he is eager to get on the pitch, only to be informed by an ultra-cautious Liverpool medical department there is no way he should be out there.
There is nothing to suggest it is the latter. If Sturridge insisted on completing the ten day block of training Klopp needs from him, you can make a fair assumption it would be enthusiastically welcomed – and monitored – by the physio, sports science and coaching team. Nobody has ever suggested he is not genuinely injured, but the idea he is so stricken it would be impossible for him to at least try to join his team mates is equally fanciful.
Previous manager Brendan Rodgers knew this, and Klopp has been increasingly educated in the curiosities of Sturridge’s routine.
Klopp’s initial attitude when he moved to Anfield was incandescence at the tone of questioning regarding Sturridge’s unavailability.
On the eve of Klopp’s first game in English football – away at Spurs – Sturridge was injured in the final training session. Nobody at Liverpool ever suggested Sturridge could have pushed himself to play at White Hart Lane, but the fact he was still named in the travelling squad was a fair indicator nobody considered it so serious he wouldn’t play for another six weeks, either.
For those who’d witnessed Rodgers’ increased irritation, and heard the ex-manager casually drop comments such as ‘Daniel needs to play’ with well-rehearsed regularity, Klopp’s robust defence of Sturridge in the face of pointed questions prompted an eyebrow raising contest.
A diplomatic reference from the manager to ‘pain thresholds’ was pounced upon as an opportunity for reporters to offer a meaningful explanation to what was going on. Steven Gerrard referenced it in his last book, explaining the difference between players who feel they need to be 100 per cent fit to be play and those who need to be 100 per cent injured to be kept off the pitch. He once had to talk Sturridge into playing against Manchester United – Manchester United of all teams – in a game in which he scored the winner. When you think of the warriors who’ve played for Liverpool - those who saw a tight calf or groin as inconvenient rather than incapacitating – you can understand why patience and tolerance wears thin when a series of niggles keeps the best player out for so long.
Klopp’s assertion that what Sturridge really needed was a proper pre-season - something that was arranged just before Christmas in the belief strengthening his body would prevent these persistent niggles – was greeted enthusiastically by some but cynically by others.
We’d heard that one before. He spent Christmas 2014 in the United States completing the kind of fitness programme Klopp had in mind on Merseyside twelve months later, all to no avail. Nobody expected the latest attempt at a seasonal miracle would be any different to the last one.
Not long after Sturridge’s first American adventures it was determined by medics hired by Fenway Sports Group that hip issues were affecting the rest of his body.
Liverpool went so far as to arrange risky hip surgery for their star striker. There were some on Merseyside’s medical team at the time who did not believe an operation was necessary, but the decision was taken because having lost Sturridge for (effectively) the season, the argument it would remedy long-term issues was compelling.
No sooner had this campaign started it was clear the hip operation had done nothing to prevent another calf, groin or hamstring strain. Sturridge was out again, and for the moment he is perpetually ‘ten days away’ from a comeback.
In his absence, the rumour mill goes into overdrive with the most extravagant suggesting spiritual as much as medical issues are affecting him.
Sturridge has never hidden his faith, but the far-fetched theories probably stem with a highly personal relationship to God he has advertised on his social media accounts.
"One day it will all come together and everything will make sense. I will see God's amazing plan taking me places I never dreamed of," he posted.
Again, there is no suggestion Sturridge believes he has a direct line to the Almighty determining whether he should put his body on the line, but it must be tough to change a player’s mind on his fitness 24 hours before a game if he thinks his creator is sending him a message his destiny is to watch from the executive box.
After another sobering defeat for Klopp, it is easy to conclude Liverpool’s squad is not good enough and they are languishing in mid-table because of poor players. Quality centre-forwards change everything
In the first week of January Vardy underwent groin surgery. Eight days later he was back leading Leicester’s charge.
“I think it’s just getting common knowledge now, I’m getting an injury every week. I never want to not play, it’s as simple as that,” Vardy said, before his operation.
“I want to play as many games as I can and help the team out in as good a way as I can.”
One wonders if Sturridge reads a sentence like that and feels any sense of responsibility, or even guilt about his inability to play football for Liverpool during such a depressing period where his absences have undermined two league seasons and cost one manager his job.
Liverpool have dispatched too many SOS's to Sturridge - a truly wonderful footballer and arguably the best natural finisher the club has had since Robbie Fowler. They need him to save the season again. Desperately. Doing so might be the only chance he has of saving his Anfield career because never again can a Liverpool manager rely on his goal return.