West Brom loan can revive Sturridge's career -- or cement his fall from grace
What became of the attackers who nearly fired Liverpool to the Premier League title in 2014?
Well, they've generally gone onto greater things. Luis Suarez has banged in the goals at Barcelona, winning both the Champions League and the European Golden Boot. Philippe Coutinho has recently joined him and seems set to become Barca's long-term replacement for Andres Iniesta, while two years after a controversial switch away from Anfield, Raheem Sterling is enjoying an outstanding campaign at Manchester City.
Barring something entirely unexpected, all three will collect title medals in May.
Daniel Sturridge, however, will not. Whereas his former teammates are among Europe's revered attackers, Sturridge has been loaned to West Bromwich Albion, a club desperately fighting for Premier League survival. It represents a remarkable comedown for a hugely talented centre-forward who was considered first choice for England only a couple of seasons ago, and the primary reason is obvious: Sturridge has become desperately injury-prone.
That phrase is often used harshly. Some players simply suffer hugely unfortunate, serious injuries; for example, one of Sturridge's predecessor in a Liverpool shirt, Djibril Cisse, suffered two broken legs. Was he injury prone? Not really. He was simply unlucky, and was otherwise a perfectly sturdy footballer who rarely missed games.
But Sturridge's injuries are different, and in recent seasons he's been sidelined with a variety of problems: hamstring, hip, calf, knee, thigh, ankle. These aren't impact injuries, and they've rarely been sustained in matches. Sturridge's body simply keeps letting him down. One former teammate suggested he wasn't able to play through the pain barrier. Even Jurgen Klopp suggested a couple of seasons ago, in relation to Sturridge, that you "have to learn what is serious pain or what is only pain". Sturridge, meanwhile, has angrily denied suggestions he's missing matches unnecessarily.
Missing so many matches, though, has a significant impact upon his role. Klopp was hardly able to build Liverpool's side around an absent player, and therefore even when fit, Sturridge was usually on the bench. But did that not suit him nicely? If he's susceptible to regular injuries, he doesn't necessarily want to playing 90 minutes twice a week, which might simply aggravate his problems.
It was frequently said that Sturridge's main problem was his lack of tenacity, his inability to lead the press. That was certainly true, but arguably less critical than his fitness issues. Besides, the real problem was different: Sturridge wasn't really a useful Plan B for Klopp to summon from the bench.
That feels particularly relevant this week, with Chelsea, one of Sturridge's former clubs, desperately searching for a player capable of providing "something different" from the bench. But it's Liverpool, more than anyone else, who require exactly that type of centre-forward. They notoriously play excellently against top-class opponents when allowed to press, but struggle against weaker sides playing defensively. Liverpool became the first side to defeat Pep Guardiola's Manchester City in the Premier League, then promptly lost to Swansea and West Brom, two clubs in the relegation zone. No one was surprised.
Sturridge, therefore, could have been in the perfect situation. He wouldn't be forced to knacker himself and risk further injuries by leading the press, but could be used exclusively in situations when Liverpool's centre-forward could stay in the penalty box and wait for service -- particularly when trying to break down a deep defence late in matches.
Sturridge, however, wasn't very adept as a super-sub. Under Klopp, he never scored a truly decisive goal having been brought off the bench -- he only managed to score when adding goals to already-comfortable leads.
Maybe that's harsh on Sturridge. He's evidently not a classic Plan B in the manner of Olivier Giroud or Andy Carroll, for his centre-forward play is about speed rather than height, but then that represents another problem: being both injury-prone and a dynamic, speedy striker is not a promising mix. So precisely what role can Sturridge play, at any club?
West Brom represent a new opportunity, and Sturridge will be playing in more of a counter-attacking side, which suits his speed. He's always appeared better at utilising that pace over longer distances rather than in the box, where his acceleration never quite allows him to escape the attention of defenders; a large proportion of his shots are blocked when he doesn't shift the ball far enough before firing. His most devastating form for Liverpool, after all, came when Brendan Rodgers switched to more of a direct style based around fast breaks, rather than the tiki-taka he initially intended.
Nevertheless, Sturridge might still face an uphill fight for a permanent place in Alan Pardew's side. Jay Rodriguez is in excellent form, and has suddenly formed a promising partnership with Salomon Rondon, who provides more of a physical presence up front. The news that West Brom are also sniffing around Andre Schurrle, a wide forward who also boasts tremendous speed, is hardly a great vote of confidence in Sturridge.
So maybe this is Sturridge's obvious role: if he's not physically capable of playing every game, and isn't tactically right for being a big club's Plan B, Sturridge may instead be forced to settle for this kind of thing: playing for a lesser, counter-attacking team, and accepting that he'll sometimes be forced to make way for others.
It's an alarming fall from grace, and worth remembering Sturridge's credentials: 21 Premier League goals in 2013-14, a one-in-two record over the course of his Liverpool career, eight international goals and even a Premier League winners' medal for his contributions for Chelsea back in 2009-10. But these feats are increasingly a distant memory, and Sturridge now has to prove himself once again.
A fine half season and Sturridge will secure a move to another big club, and perhaps even a World Cup spot. A disappointing few months and, with Sturridge 29 later this year, this might be the tale of another English talent who peaked rather early.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.