There are 13 current Premier League players who have hit the 15 goals scored mark over the past three seasons.
Liverpool have two of them.
One of those players just made his debut in a Liverpool shirt on Sunday - Christian Benteke. He scored 19 league goals in 2012-13 and came close again in 2014-15 with 13 goals while appearing in six fewer games.
The other player, of course, is Daniel Sturridge. Unfortunately he has battled injury issues at Liverpool including, crucially, last season when Luis Suarez departed for Barcelona. Sturridge only appeared in 12 league games last season for Liverpool, with his final appearance in the FA Cup win against Blackburn on April 8th. He underwent hip surgery almost exactly a month later on May 5th and has been rehabbing ever since.
Given Sturridge's absence from the last 8 games of last season, a span that included the FA Cup semifinal to Aston Villa that Liverpool lost, and his rehab away from the squad, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising his name was barely mentioned in so many season previews, predicted first choice teams, and general discussion in the summer.
And yet, it is a little surprising - at least to me. Sure there were a lot of summer signings, including two headliners in Firmino and Benteke. And sure, because Sturridge is away from Melwood at the moment, it's easier for him to slip out of the daily churn of discussion on Liverpool Football Club. But Sturridge is still one of our best players when fit, and has been crucial to the team almost immediately since he debuted in January 2013.
Yes, all the new signings will be important to our success this season and so will the rest of the squad. We will probably also need some improvements from disappointing performers last season, such as Lovren and Lallana. But in my opinion, I think the one player that could really tip the scales in Liverpool's favor this season is a fit and firing Daniel Sturridge.
With the news that he could be targeting a September return against Manchester United, it just might be time to have a discussion about how he will fit into the team most effectively.
Why Is Daniel Sturridge Important?
Despite inconsistent playing time last season due to injuries, Liverpool took 25 of the available 36 points (8 wins out of 12) in the league matches Sturridge appeared in. That's 40% of their points total for the entire season in less than one third of the total games. Even if you remove the magical 2013-14 season, Liverpool has averaged 1.88 points per game in Sturridge's league appearances since his debut compared to 1.48 ppg without him. When you project that out over a 38 game season, the difference comes out to a 16 point disparity.
The bottom line is that Sturridge is a difference maker.
|NPG90 vs "Domestic Top Six", Last 3 Seasons|
In fact, part of the reason that Sturridge is a difference maker is that he has still generally been an elite performer against the best teams. The above table shows non-penalty goals scored by a variety of Liverpool forwards - even those rumored to be on the way out - over the past three seasons against the top six teams in their countries, normalized to a 90 minute rate (NPG90). Of course, players like Balotelli and Origi have played in other countries in that time frame, so some of their numbers reflect their performance against the likes of Juventus and PSG as well.
Assume for a minute that Liverpool will finish in the top six positions in the league table. In that scenario, if Daniel Sturridge played all 90 minutes in the ten fixtures against the other top six teams, you would expect him to score around 6 goals on average if his past performance were to hold fairly steady.
This sort of production is not easily replaced. Perhaps it can't be maintained, especially with Sturridge's injury issues. But unless there's a precipitous drop-off on the pitch once he's fit, one would expect he would likely continue to be one of the more prolific goal scorers at the club. At this point we can only hope that the surgery and rehab are largely successful, and that Liverpool will be able to keep him healthy and available for as much of the league campaign as possible.
Where Does Sturridge Fit Back Into The Team?
I certainly don't claim to be a tactical expert, so I'm interested to hear what all of you think. Is Sturridge still in our best XI? If so, what sort of formation fits that XI best?
My personal feeling is that Sturridge is our best forward, and he should absolutely be starting in the league when healthy. I think that Brendan Rodgers should be managing his training and game load to get the best out of him in the league.
However, you do run into mathematical limits if you play a back four and try to fit Sturridge, Benteke, Firmino, Coutinho, Henderson, Milner and Can into the front six. I consider all those players worthy of starting, but someone would have to get left on the bench. Perhaps Brendan will deploy certain players in certain games for certain tactical requirements, while also folding in other squad players such as Ibe and Ings. But I do think that Rodgers will have a certain XI that he will feel is the strongest XI on the team, and I am wondering how Sturridge fits into that.