To be or not to be? Daniel Sturridge’s career as one of football’s finest showmen is caught in a Shakespearean struggle between a matter of mind and body.
Sounds like a minimalistic epitaph, doesn’t it? An almost traumatising footballing elegy associated with the unfortunate ones which would most probably invoke a sense of tragedy from their fans. That one word which strikes fear into the very heart of owner, manager and ultras alike. Jurgen Klopp took the same road with his one-word answer in his press conference after a 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace in late April this year about a certain Birmingham born striker’s fitness. The Liverpool alleys did echo of indifferent sighs and frustrated moans, building on the disappointment that Christian Benteke had so brutally delivered.
Every once in a while, the Anfield faithful has been bipolar because of their opinions on a certain player, like Danny Murphy, Dirk Kuyt or Joe Allen in the past. Daniel Sturridge has been no exception, proving to be a conundrum because of his serious eye for the goal and his misfortune with his own bodily injuries. Whether to sell him or keep him has been one of the unanswered questions of the universe plaguing the Merseyside fanbase for quite a few years. But before we go any further, a trip down the memory lane is necessary.
Cue customary flashback: Brendan Rodgers is carefully checking his watch, trying hard to keep his enthusiasm bottled as his boys have established a lead of two goals against their blue counterparts at Anfield. The referee blows the whistle, and within a flurry of movements, he witnesses Kolo Toure hoofing the ball up ahead to the left-hand side of the field. A decisive flashy 188 cm tall figure moves ahead of the entire blue line of defence and reaches the ball before anyone else, subsequently lobbing it over a rushing Tim Howard to make the crowd go wild.
Brendan Rodgers tries his best to mimic Bill Shankly. And what does the goalscorer do? His trademark celebration of the wiggly arms was a no-show, nor did he rush to his compatriots to celebrate the audacious finish: all Daniel Sturridge did was just stand there, arms spread wide in front of the Everton fans, soaking in all the glory. He stands there knowing that this is as good as it gets, forcing Phil Jagielka to collect the ball from the back of the net in shame at the expense of anger from the entire away section.
That was his time in the glorious world of football, and he was living it, away from all the fear of being an afterthought. Scoring in the World Cup in Brazil months later, and signing a five year deal with Liverpool in October of 2014, Sturridge prepared himself for another 20 goal season.
But fortune is a fickle mistress. After opening his tally for the season without the notorious Luis Suarez by his side, the international break awaited him. A deadly mixture of Roy Hodgson, physical strain and mismanagement later, an injury came to the fore, inevitably, and that’s where it all began. The first of the many, providing the spark for the period of apprehension to follow amidst the fans, the club and Daniel himself.
“He (Suarez) had to wear Stevie’s boots, which were probably two sizes too big for him and he went out and bagged a hat-trick. Nobody else would have done that.”
— Raheem Sterling, on Luis Suarez’s swollen ankle against Norwich City
Everyone knows that Luis Suarez, for all his antics, is one enduring chap who can go through brick walls, that his drive for the game takes the better of him. The point is not to compare Daniel Sturridge with his ex-strike-partner. Rather, it’s to showcase that every once in a while, footballers gulp down the pain, and get up on their feet to carry on forward. Even Dejan Lovren can do it with five painkillers a day. This is something that the 28-year old striker hasn’t been associated with, with recurrent injuries to his ankles, calf, hamstring, hip and thighs. In his nearly five years of donning the red jersey, he has made just the 97 league appearances, missing out on more than half of the Liverpool fixture, out for more than 650 days in total.
Sturridge spent Christmas 2014 in Boston trying to get fit, and underwent hip surgery in May 2015, but a mental block has been a factor in his recent deterioration into a benchwarmer from being the “main man” upfront. Sometimes it does feel unfair on him that he’s always under scrutiny because of his lackadaisical approach much like Mesut Ozil at Arsenal, but there exists a need to draw a line.
For a striker who used to have league defenders on toast with his positional movement, lethal left foot and occasional keepy-uppy skills, being unable to even dribble past Ciaran Clark to create space for himself is a sad state of affairs. He was given a lifeline against Newcastle by Klopp, but all he could offer up were long-range efforts to try and mask his indecisiveness on the ball and reduced pace. To think there once was a time when he almost had an “autopilot” triggered anywhere near 25 yards of the opposition goal can be considered as being nostalgic.
The origin of the word nostalgia has its place in Greece, formed by the union of two words: nóstos meaning “homecoming” and, álgos meaning “pain”. Often described as a medical condition, it is found largely affecting the football-crazed population by the banks of the River Mersey. Be it the glory days of the 80s, or Robbie Fowler’s snorting celebration or Steven Gerrard lifting the Champions League in Istanbul or the lad from the sunny Spain, it’s all in their heads, all the time. But nostalgia comes along with the “pain”, and they know all about how chronic injuries rob a striker off of his extra burst of speed, case in point, Fernando Torres. Three back to back injuries in 2010, and the World Cup-winning forward lost those few milliseconds of reflexes that made defenders like Vidić eat dust. He struggled after that, as Sturridge is struggling right now to kickstart his motorbike.
It’s an unholy recipe — a low pain threshold, resulting in eight injuries in just the last two seasons itself, and the intensity of the pain he faces following injuries from every nudge and tackle. Yes, it’s as much a matter of body over mind as mind over body, but his approach to the game has changed a lot and it’s fair to say that he hasn’t adapted enough to bear the entire responsibility on his shoulders.
“If a player suffered a lot of injuries it’s only natural that they would lose confidence in their body, in particular their speed, strength and endurance.”
— Darren Burgess, former head of Liverpool’s Sport Science Department, on Daniel Sturridge
It’s almost like the ex-City and Chelsea man is suffering from an ever-present existential crisis now, unable to exert himself to the fullest, completing a full ninety minutes last against Chelsea towards the end of 2015-16 season. It’s as if, he’s stuck in his own version of “Groundhog Day”, reliving the state of perturbation about suffering a recurrence of an injury. The fear and the anxiety takes the better of men, because obviously footballers aren’t automatons.
Burgess believes that, “it’s a responsibility the sport of football owes to those who play it to ditch the ultimately profit-driven, misplaced sense of masculinity.” Football science has progressed into a realm where the body isn’t considered as its only temple, where managers aren’t interested in giving the players the ignorant Clough-shoulder.
There is a need to pay heed to the mental struggle it takes for a professional to reach the dizzying heights, and when properly addressed, wonders happen. Like how the Chapecoense plane crash survivor, Alan Ruschel having suffered spinal injuries and the horror of witnessing 71 people die, got a standing ovation at Nou Camp seven months after the tragedy. Wonders do happen.
Daniel Sturridge needs to believe and carefully work towards reinvigoration through extended periods of training and practice games to give him the confidence, so that he can cash in on the cheques his mind writes for him. He needs to understand that he is not one who revels in the glory of his past.
He is just a 28-year-old who needs a jolt to rejuvenate his career, shedding away his fears and turning his ear away from the negativity in the process. To finally put ease to the minds of the thousands visiting Anfield every week, it’s time for him to address the question: keep or sell? Match-going fans or not, everyone has an opinion because of their investment in their club, and when it comes to a player who is all for carpooling karaoke to Melwood, but not even being able to turn up during a crunch away game, the “banter” too often crosses the line. Because, hell, this is football and things tend to get overly emotional every now and then.
The problem for Daniel Sturridge is that he is an injury-plagued talent with just 15 league goals in the last three years (as of Huddesrfield at Anfield, 2017).
The problem for Daniel Sturridge is that some big expectations were set, and his bad luck has turned him into a broken man.
The problem for Daniel Sturridge is that while his Uruguayan friend went on to win the major accolades for Barcelona and win top-scoring awards, he was left in a whirlwind of injuries, misfortune and a revisited playlist by The Smiths.
The problem for Daniel Sturridge is that his career has taken an indefinite pit stop.
Football Paradise spoke to the former head of Liverpool’s sports science department, Darren Burgess, on the subject of pain threshold and the demands on the modern player (full interview here). On being asked about Suarez, Sturridge and the effect on injuries on the kind of football they play, he had this to say.
DB:”Well, Luis was never injured so we never had to worry about about his mental focus being altered by injury. He was, and is, incredibly resilient, particularly considering the style of game he plays. I never like to talk about specific players that I’ve worked with but I will say that in general injury, and in particular repeated injury, can be incredibly debilitating to a player’s confidence and general mental health. Some players can undoubtedly do it better than others. In the past, I have conducted speed and endurance tests on players in order to convince them that they were as fast as they’d always been.”
While his teammates at Liverpool have emulated Sturridge’s form recently in an act of solidarity, it won’t always be the case. Players like Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane will soon find their scoring boots into the season, and their heavy metal manager will indeed go into the market in search of a prolific goalscorer, as it’s painfully obvious that they don’t have a lethal finisher in their team.
There’s no doubt Daniel Sturridge is a menace, but he’s been a phantom too long. He’s been on the fringes, witnessing players come and go, replacing him and failing to make a mark even when he is fit. That it has come to this even with him in the team is a low, as he finds himself at the bottom of the barrel at the club. To climb out of the pit he now finds himself in, he needs to move. Liverpool, sadly, needs to move on too, because as much as it pleases the eyes, finishes like the one past Jonas Lössl don’t come too often now, which has turned him into more of a luxury rather than a “wildcard” now.
If it were all set in a Shakespearean world, one would have found Daniel Sturridge talk to the skull of his previous unbroken self in a graveyard, to remind himself what used to be and what’s yet to come. Because, the final act is nearing its close with every passing transfer window for him, and he needs to act on it, so that the fans don’t go, “Alas, poor Sturridge! I knew him.”
Burgess had worked closely with Sturridge during his best seasons at Liverpool, and reaffirms the concern around the striker ending on an infinite loop of injury and recuperation, thus adversely impacting the steely determination needed to succeed as a striker in the Premier League.
DB: “I think it’s a massive concern for the player and the club. Anyone with that injury record is more likely to re-injure. Unfortunately, the biggest risk factor for injury is the previous injury. Any player or person with that injury record would have huge confidence issues going forward and would need all the support he could get.”
Because what Daniel Sturridge needs is a fresh start, to begin anew, to newer pastures away from the expectations of the past. Because as good old Winston said, the era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. Because Daniel knows well enough the war that followed just three years after that quote, and he needs to avert similar indecisiveness and inactivity. Because again, it’s as much about the mind as it’s about the body.
Because a man who believes in faith, must have faith in himself to not be an Andy Carroll or a Theo Walcott or worse, a Dean Ashton. Because surely even Sturridge doesn’t want to stick around till 2019 haunting the Anfield corridors like Jose Enrique, and lose out on some football for some pointless Instagram vacation videos. Because the footballing world needs more of the wriggly hands to drown out the scrutiny hopefully, to turn the apathy into adoration.