Liverpool were patient waiting for Daniel Sturridge - now it's his turn to be considerate
Published 29/08/2016 | 13:57
The presence of an extremely talented individual player often seems to be a cause of pain as much as serenity for managers.
When there is a gulf in class between a footballer and his team-mates, there is an inevitable potential for tension.
Every individual match-winning performance becomes the focus of attention; press conferences become single issue events lavishing praise on the player; injuries are perceived as catastrophic and recoveries a source of salvation.
If those around the particular player aren’t contributing so much, transfer hype shadows him: “How long can he put up with the mediocrity around him?”
And if the player is fit and for some reason not selected, there is an incandescence expressed on his behalf. The constant ‘me parties’ can be tedious.
Every manager seeks to create a team not only complementary to his star performer’s ability, but one in which he is a contributor rather than the focal point. Only then do you have a side capable of being successful.
Over the past 20 years, one of Liverpool’s many problems is they’ve too often had teams possessing a supreme individual talent who too often outshone the rest.
For a while it was Steve McManaman, then Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suárez and, for a brief period most recently, Daniel Sturridge.
Whether it was Gérard Houllier, Rafa Benítez or Brendan Rodgers, they knew that their first task in constructing a side capable of challenging was to stop relying so much on a star man. It meant their prize asset would have to be compromised - sometimes a little, occasionally a lot (once or twice too much). Then everyone else would look better.
Each manager had a bit of success. Houllier’s 2001 treble side did not rely on Owen, despite him winning the Ballon d’Or that season. Houllier was able to rotate the England striker (he did not start the League Cup final that season), protecting his hamstrings to get more from him. Supporters who look fondly at that era celebrate Sami Hyypia, Didi Hamann, Jamie Carragher and Gary McAllister.
Benítez won the Champions League and FA Cup in 2005 and 2006 largely because of Gerrard, but the most consistent Premier League performance came in 2009 because of the Carragher/Hyypia defensive pairing and a midfield including Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso, allied to the striking presence of Fernando Torres.
Many still argue Rodgers’ near miss in pursuit of the title was all about Suárez, but in the Uruguayan’s first two seasons Liverpool finished 8th and 7th. It was when Rodgers tweaked the formation and Sturridge was alongside him, allied to the emergence of Raheem Sterling, that one of the most dynamic strikeforces in the country was created. Suarez played much of the title bid season in a wide-attacking role in order to accommodate Sturridge. Compromise worked.
The difference for Jürgen Klopp when compared with Houllier inheriting Owen, Benítez Gerrard and Rodgers Suárez, is Liverpool’s best player was injured when he arrived. By then, of course, we were delivering our weekly Sturridge dispatches. They’ve barely stopped since.
It was the worst of both worlds for Klopp last October. Not only was every press conference dominated by questions about the contribution and fitness of Sturridge, he was unable to select him. Although it seems to irk the England striker even to mention this statement of fact - as though it is an act of the most intolerable cruelty – his appearance record was appalling.
It would appear many think it was Klopp’s duty to sit around thinking everything will be fine once Sturridge returned (just as Rodgers did in his final six months). Never mind forward planning, Klopp had to indulge the idea of building a team that would be complete once his fully-fit goalscorer slotted into a central forward role.
Evidently, Klopp is rather more astute. The 'we should build a team around Sturridge' ship sailed into the distance long ago.
Indeed, many of those taking the 'why isn’t Sturridge starting exam?' at Tottenham last Saturday demonstrated they have not done their revision. How swiftly they've forgotten Klopp's first fixture as Liverpool manager - at White Hart Lane - when Sturridge travelled to North London but said he could not play on the eve of the game. Let me assure you there were plenty of 'death stares' around Merseyside when that news filtered out before kick-off, too.
Since then, Sturridge’s injuries appear to have taken some pace out of his legs. There was a moment in the second half of the Europa League final, and at Burnley last weekend, when Sturridge was sent beyond a defence but did not have the capacity to make a sprint. It was worrying. It may be mental rather than physical – understandable caution perhaps – and hopefully not beyond remedy. Nevertheless, Klopp is correct to conclude the time is long overdue for the player to adapt to the system rather than persist with the idea the system and everyone else must adapt to the player.
The landscape has changed for the better at Liverpool because of this. On the basis of his first three games, it won’t just be questions about Sturridge Klopp is fending off this season. Sadio Mané, playing the ‘wide striker’ role to perfection, could become the subject of our obsession. Klopp won’t want that either as, like those before him, he recognises only a multi-faceted team can be successful.
Sturridge can be as frustrated as he likes. He can complain as often as he wants. Those who want him in the side - in his position of choice - can make as many appeals on his behalf as they wish in the forlorn hope anyone who matters at Liverpool cares what they think.
History at Anfield shows the best way for Sturridge to win medals with Liverpool is to realise no team of Klopp’s will rely on his selection, or any single player. It’s a message he must also have heard when he was at Chelsea and Manchester City.
Twelve months ago Sturridge was the absentee whose return every Liverpool fan, coach and board member craved. His absence was debilitating to himself and the club. Now he is a fit, he is one of numerous striking ‘options’. He'll still play. He'll still play a lot. Liverpool have invested a lot of time and money waiting for him to be available again. The least he can do is invest a little time and patience in the Liverpool manager to use him as and when appropriate.
The questions may still be all about Sturridge, but the destiny of the team is not.
As this transfer window comes to a close, that it is one of the surest signs of healthy progress at Anfield.