London – Just before Daniel Sturridge was withdrawn from proceedings on a grey northeast afternoon, he could be seen sitting on the turf clutching his left boot and looking in distress. He soon rose to his feet and headed to the bench as Roberto Firmino came on for him as one of two 74th-minute Liverpool substitutions, the striker’s expression turning to glumness as he did so. For those who follow Sturridge’s career it was a poignant moment and for the most pessimistic, further evidence that a player who once shone so brightly so often is slipping further into the darkness of a career unfulfilled.
It feels almost like a trick of the mind to remember it was only three years ago, at the climax of the 2013-14 season, that Sturridge was being spoken of as being among the most deadly finishers in Europe. It was the days of Brendan Rodgers and Luis Suárez, a doomed but thrilling title charge and, for Sturridge, 25 goals in 33 appearances. He was at his peak, ready to kick on, ready to become an Anfield legend. And then came the painful demise, literally given Sturridge’s injury record. A long and varied list, taking in more than 640 days on the sidelines since he arrived from Chelsea in January 2013, and it would not come as a surprise if that moment of distress against Newcastle was the onset of another forced absence.
That is where we are with Sturridge, and to some extent it is unfair given the player’s attempts to get himself in shape to be a potent force for Liverpool once more. He underwent hip surgery in May 2015 and, the previous Christmas, flew to Boston in order to get fit. But the knocks have taken their toll and chipped away at the player’s talents.
There have been goals – 26 in 76 appearances since the 2013-14 season – and hence excitement and intrigue at the rare start he was handed against Newcastle by Jürgen Klopp as the German looked to shake up a side that has shown a severe lack of ruthlessness in front of goal. Firmino was dropped to the bench, not a major surprise given the Brazilian’s somewhat tired displays in recent weeks, and Sturridge took his place as the focal point of a three-man attack, with Sadio Mané to his left and Mohammed Salah to his right. With Philippe Coutinho also deployed in midfield it was all set up for Liverpool’s No15, who had scored seven times in seven previous outings against Newcastle, to take his chance, in more ways than one. But ultimately he failed to do so as Liverpool drew 1-1 for the second time inside a week.
Graeme Souness, the former Liverpool captain and manager turned Sky pundit, described Sturridge’s performance as “labored”, while the judgments on social media were even more damning. The post-match statistics also did Sturridge few favors – he had just one shot on target during the entirety of his time on the pitch. And it was a decent opportunity, too, with the player clean through on goal following Ciaran Clark’s horrible slice just outside Newcastle’s area on 50 minutes. The Sturridge of old would have buried it; this version hit a tame shot straight at Rob Elliot’s feet and watched on as Salah also failed to convert the rebound.
In fairness to Sturridge, he did try to impact proceedings, during the first half in particular. Facing a deep-lying and compact back four, he drifted back in order to pull defenders out of position as well as to initiate attacks. On 19 minutes he put Salah through with a well-weighted pass and shortly after it was possible to hear the traveling supporters chant his name. They clearly appreciated Sturridge’s efforts, which while lacking Firmino’s relentless pressing did involve the closing down of opponents, as seen after just two minutes when Sturridge forced Newcastle’s captain Jamaal Lascelles to clear the ball out for a throw. But Sturridge’s display deteriorated after the break and it felt symbolic that he should be replaced by Firmino – for that is what has happened to the England international on a broader level following Klopp’s arrival at Anfield two years ago. A one-time regular is now a regular back-up option.
“It’s time,” the manager said when asked before kick-off why he had decided to start Sturridge, and few could disagree with that given Liverpool went into Sunday’s encounter having scored just seven times from their previous 126 shots. A high-quality finisher was required at a time when many of Liverpool’s top-four rivals have one of their own – Romelu Lukaku, Sergio Agüero, Alvaro Morata, Harry Kane. There was a time when Sturridge could stand shoulder to shoulder with them all, but no longer. The sharpness is not there, either with his movement or his finishing, and who knows when he will start for Liverpool again? Given their next two Premier League games are against Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur – either side of an important Champions League trip to Maribor – it is unlikely to be for some time.
“He was so disappointing,” Souness said. It was, and is, hard to disagree.
The Guardian Sport