Saturday 24 March 2018

Sturridge will have to grin and bear it - or move on

Tottenham 1-1 Liverpool

Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge. Photo: PA
Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge. Photo: PA

Jonathan Liew

The look on Daniel Sturridge's face said it all. The Liverpool substitute wore a withering expression as he realised Divock Origi was coming on ahead of him. You could write songs about it; art scholars could devote entire careers to studying it. It is Van Gogh in one of his self-portraits, stern and disgusted, mounted against a background of swirling Tottenham fans. It is the Mona Lisa with a skinny beard and nonplussed glower. It is the Girl with a Pearl Earring in a fluorescent yellow bib.

For Liverpool fans, of course, this is less a cause for humour than for puzzlement.

Was their star striker displaying a fleeting and forgivable disappointment, or some graver discontent? Is he merely in a grump, or in the awakenings of an open revolt? Is the Mona Lisa scowling or not?

If act one was Sturridge's admission last week that he was "not happy" at being forced to play on the wing rather than up front, and act two was Jurgen Klopp claiming that Sturridge needed to play "flexible football", then this was third act drama.

Had Liverpool been able to convert their fine display at White Hart Lane into a win, they might have been able to shrug off the ongoing Sturridge row as so much background noise.

Instead, Danny Rose equalised from close range, Liverpool spent 18 minutes striving for the winning goal they deserved, and their most potent goal threat spent 16 of them in a bib.

Liverpool's Adam Lallana has his shot blocked by Tottenham's Toby Alderweireld. Photo: Reuters
Liverpool's Adam Lallana has his shot blocked by Tottenham's Toby Alderweireld. Photo: Reuters

The first thing to be said is that there were sound footballing reasons for leaving Sturridge out of the starting XI.

Against Tottenham, Klopp decided on a high-energy press to hassle Tottenham's back five. To pull off a system like that, you need forwards who can close down the opposition in lightning bursts - players such as Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, who managed to turn over possession again and again. Sturridge, for all his qualities, is not that sort of striker.

"Sturridge is a wonderfully skilled player," Klopp said.

"But I made the decision that the kind of defending (required) was too important."


As Klopp alluded to himself, there is also the issue of Sturridge's base fitness.

"He did not have a perfect pre-season. A few other players had more pre-season. They've trained together since the first day of pre-season, so that's an advantage. Then, when it was still 1-0, we needed someone for the counter-attack. That's Divock."

One of the more interesting bits of Klopp's interview with Gary Lineker for the BBC last week was when he discussed the art of dropping a player.

"The problem is with the talk," he explained. "The absolute truth is 'you are not good enough'. But I don't want to say this. It's clear, so you don't have to ask. If you are not in, you should be disappointed, but not too disappointed. Come on. It's life."

Here, in just a few words, is the difference between Klopp and Sturridge encapsulated. It is, fundamentally, a difference in outlook. For Klopp, football is too much fun to dwell on your setbacks for long. Hell, life is too much fun for all that.

For Sturridge, the road to greatness is paved not with good times and belly laughs, but with grim, singular sacrifice and murderous ambition. It is the only way he knows of fulfilling his destiny.

These disputes do not necessarily have to be terminal. Here is another Liverpool player talking about his new role: "It is different. I am a Liverpool player, and what the manager asks me to do, I will do. If he thinks that is the best thing for the team, then I will do it." Do we genuinely think James Milner - a man who retains ambitions of anchoring the England midfield - is any happier playing at left-back than Sturridge is on the wing? Of course not. But there are ways of going about these things.

Ultimately, it may require two men known for their brutal honesty to find a more diplomatic accommodation.

Liverpool's next game, against Leicester, is not for a fortnight. Time enough for Sturridge to get up to full speed, to get some minutes under his belt with England, to galvanise Liverpool's season by doing what he does best.

The alternative scenario? Liverpool fans do not take kindly to players who they think are putting their own problems before those of the club. And for some reason, they have always withheld from Sturridge the unconditional love they give so freely to Klopp.

One thing is certain: if Sturridge does choose to pick a fight with Klopp, in the court of Merseyside public opinion, there will only be one winner.

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