Daniel Sturridge and Jon Flanagan make awkward bedfellows at first blush. One has an easy grace with modern classic hairstyles, the other has... hair. One has tricks and dances, the other is tricky insofar as he up-ends with blindsided tackles. One plies his trade tallying goals, the other achieved legendary status with the first and so-far only goal of his career. They generally operate on opposite ends of the field, rarely managing direct combinations. As we revel in Sturridge's return and await Flanno's impending one, what ties the two together in Liverpool's 2015 narrative is that both are poised to galvanize a Red charge for Champions League qualification.
March 30th, 2014. The 80th minute of a match that had long before been painted Red. With no mercy rule in the Barclays Premier League, a Tottenham Lukewarmspur side had no choice but to see the game out. It was honest professionalism that lead to Roberto Soldado's meeting with destiny. The man was doing his job, running down a threatening, if pointless, chance. The only problem was the side in Red had a guy doing his job, too. Liverpool fans all remember what happened when those two wills collided: right foot to ball, you shall not pass, sideways swandive into a crunching landing. Cleaner than hydrogen power that tackle, but the young man who committed it brings the stank.
Jonathan Patrick Flanagan. Scouse Cafu. Flafu. Flanny Alves. Floberto Carlos. Pocket Carra. Giovanni Flan Bronckhorst. ROD Flucking Flanagan. He's a pipe dream come to life. A 5'11" frame welcoming you beyond thunderdome with every stride across the green in his throwback all-blacks. Surgical destruction. The having of hair. Moles. This is our lad. Perhaps in a way no other current Liverpool player is. Steven Gerrard can claim all the same fan-to-fame high notes, but Gerrard has always worked with 32 carats of classically cut talent. Flanno is salt of the earth, bumpy knuckles and all.
Overmatched by half his entire career and written off partly because he is an everyman. Our doubts in Flanagan reflect our doubts in ourselves. No way he could do it, because if he can, why is it we're sat on the couch instead of out there living our dreams? In a game where the richest clubs can generate the GDPs of medium-sized countries, a player like Jon Flanagan is a critical touchstone for the average fan.
We never have, nor ever will, see and feel the game like Raheem Sterling does. His game is a whole different species, Fowler bless it. But Flanagan's? That's not so hard to fathom. One can almost see him eschewing an orange wedge in favor of an ice cold Capri Sun at halftime. Never the best touch or pace, never the required attacking prowess to succeed in a modern system. The narrative dogs the lad to this day. Perhaps it is one he will battle ceaselessly in his career. Don't expect him to shirk from that challenge, either.
Stank is not the term to describe Daniel Sturridge's game. Not unless we're recounting the state of a would-be defender's shorts after going up against England's number nine. If Flanagan is Etta James, Sturridge is Mariah Carey. His feats aren't alive in the struggle like Flanno's are. With his professional bloodlines and honed by one of the finest youth academies in the country, Sturridge always had the pedigree to do this. But pedigree is no more an antidote for doubts and critics than hard graft has been for Flanagan.
How shocking, then, to find ourselves where we are now with Sturridge; where we are with Flanagan. How critical Studge's purposeful goalscoring has become for Liverpool; how inspiring Flanno's iron. It's us who weren't prepared for this, not them. Now we crave it; now we've got it bad. That rare hunger for goals is worth its weight in gold, though, and it fuels Studge's constant sliding across a backline, impatiently sifting through different places in the sun, deciding which perch suits his mercurial fancy best.
Then the moments of clarity, and how often they arrive. A slight tensing and involuntary lean, knowing Phil sees it's on. He wills the pass to come so he can finally unleash his particular type of venom. And when that pass arrives he's already scored, already dancing. Right side, left, two touches, three, cut back, or take the lane being given - rarely does it matter. The menace leads to deadly execution with such inevitability you wonder if Pai Mei wasn't involved in Sturridge's development somewhere along the line.
For any gaffer to deal with having his team shorn of such a deadly element is no mean feat. For Rodgers to do so the same season he lost Suarez is one of the most underrated coaching jobs of the year. That is not to say that the pieces he had left over weren't worthy of the refreshed focus of play. The context Sturridge returns to - Markovic and Moreno wrecking flanks with abandon, Lallana and Coutinho dovetailing into magical rainbows, Dreem going all whatever people say I am that is what I'm not, Henderson and Lucas taking hold of their midfield partnership with assured range, Sakho and Can solidifying defense while creating threatening attacks - is a joy to behold.
It's easy to imagine Sturridge's movements and finishing completing an offensive puzzle that, while brilliant, has been susceptible to profligacy. A player with Sturridge's unique appetite for finding the back of the net is one who cuts through the fat of the possessional approach, often at critical moments. Those moments of ruthlessness are the difference between draws and wins, cup runs and cup celebrations, goodness and greatness.
It would be an insult to the way the lad approaches the game to suggest Liverpool needed to get Flanagan out of their system, as well. However, his reintroduction will bring with it as many new positive wrinkles as Sturridges will, in particular the example he will set for Moreno and Manquillo. And with his proven positional flexibility, none should be surprised if Flanagan finds his way into that possessional launching pad of a back 3 and releasing Can into midfield.
With the team now settled into its groove, Sturridge and Flanagan come back as fresh lubrication for a finely crafted engine. Sturridge brings the calming bottom line of goals. Flanagan's grind completes Rodgers' pu pu platter of defensive options. Strength in depth, indeed.
Beyond reinforcements, these two players are a reminder that the beauty of this game is how it reflects the quirky asymmetry of the world and people around it. Not everything is accounted for, shit happens, legends rise and crash like waves on a rocky beach. Flanagans crop up to beat odds, just as Sturridges have to take their lumps before fulfilling their promise. Around these parts you won't find many people willing to stick their necks out and doubt either Jon Flanagan or Daniel Sturridge. It's a marker of how far both have come since their initial introductions in Red. With injury woes hopefully behind them, the fun part is what comes next.