Sturridge to enter the striking conversation

Posted by Kristian Walsh

Kolo Toure is a player who dominates. Against Stoke, he dominated all who came within his incalculable radius, launching head and limb at every ball that moved in his direction. But his domination on the pitch was dwarfed by his domination off it.

A soggy post-match eavesdrop on Walton Breck Road revealed an obsession with Toure; obsession of how well he performed against a forward line so brutish, of how the crossbar still quivered at the memory of his forehead cannoning the ball against it. Even with Simon Mignolet's penalty save -- a moment to prompt rapture that felt so unwelcome at Anfield for so long -- it was Toure who dominated the dialogue, who assaulted minds and lips on Saturday afternoon during and after the 1-0 victory.

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It’s no surprise given how long Liverpool have lacked a defender who believes in defending, who immerses himself in the concept of being a wall that cannot be climbed over or run through. Thighs careered toward the opposition and head repeatedly met ball -- not since Sami Hyypia, who left in the summer of 2009, has such strangeness been witnessed at Anfield. Toure’s style was met with a sort of suspicion originally, like discovering debris from a meteor shower in the back garden, but it did not take long for that to dissipate.

Daniel Sturridge is not a player who dominates. He is not a player who grasps games by the collar and dropkicks them; he is not somebody who visibly rewrites a game's narrative, changing its direction with all-action performances. He is not Steven Gerrard or Luis Suarez; judging by all that was said on Saturday, he is not even Toure.

But what Sturridge can do is score goals and win points for his side. He has done it a number of times since his January move from Chelsea, including Saturday’s winner against Stoke.

It was a fantastic effort that highlighted all he is good at: Strong finishing ability, a proclivity to find space away from his marker and confidence in being able to do both. The goal typified a good all-round performance; he would drop deep and link up well with the trio of advanced players behind him while also showing enthusiasm to inhabit the shoulder of the last defender. His pace was a constant concern for Stoke and constant source of salivation for Philippe Coutinho.

But nobody was really speaking of Sturridge or how it was him, and only him, who beat Asmir Begovic -- a goalkeeper who proved otherwise unbeatable, seeming to sprout an extra pair of arms and legs every time he faced a shot, like a deity worshiped by thousands of nondescript baseball caps. The talk was of Toure, of Lucas Leiva’s excellent work in midfield and of Mignolet's last-minute intervention.

Sturridge will have to get used to this. He scored 10 league goals in 14 appearances for Liverpool last season, yet rarely entered the preseason conversation of players capable of propelling Liverpool into the top four. This is partly because of Brendan Rodgers’ varied use of him since joining the club, especially with 30-goal Suarez, albeit wanting to leave Anfield, also available to play central of the front three -- but it is also because of what he does and how he does it.

Sturridge is a striker who scores, and that is not something alien to Liverpool. The lineage of talented forwards serves as a reminder of Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Fernando Torres and Suarez. Rarely has the club been without a center forward who was worthy of gracing a comic book, their shots accompanied with specks of dust trailing behind the ball, a speech bubble of delight sprouting from their lips.

The 23-year-old is not at that level yet, though none of those other players could be considered as such after less than a full season at the club. Even if Sturridge does become as prolific as them, he would simply be doing what is expected of him -- maintaining the arrogance on the Kop when their forward runs through on goal.

His task, as well as Rodgers’, is to manage the expectation of your best only being sufficient enough; to not become disheartened at Suarez’s name being sung after scoring a hat trick at Craven Cottage, to realise the enormity of footsteps he must follow. The tapestry of Liverpool is weaved gloriously, but those threads can also bind tightly and restrict.

When Sturridge signed from Chelsea, there was a worry he would dominate conversations too much. He had a reputation -- an uninformed one, at that -- of being arrogant, selfish and unwilling to work for the team. His first eight months at the club has acted as a denial of all three accusations; Sturridge is soft-spoken, hard-working and keen to improve with every game. The allegation of laziness proved to be a sign of laziness by those who said it in the first place.

There is a lot he can improve, of course: He can suffer from lapses in concentration and can lack confidence if he is frustrated; his decision-making in front of goal can also be erratic at times. But this is a player who is only 23 and with only 59 league starts since making his professional debut in February 2007.

When sculpting players, there are two choices: To take the entire player, good and bad, and chip away at the deficiencies; alternatively, a player can be a blank canvas, clay to mould. What Rodgers decides could determine Sturridge's success at Liverpool.

Indeed, Liverpool have a dilemma with regard to their striking options, particularly with Suarez’s future uncertain. If -- and when -- Suarez leaves the club, whenever that may be, the scoring burden will fall upon Sturridge. With their transfer window struggles continuing, they could decide to supplement Sturridge with another center forward, somebody capable of both playing with and instead of him. With his legs tiring against Stoke, Rodgers opted to keep Sturridge on instead of introducing Fabio Borini -- an insight into his lack of faith in Borini as much as his faith in Sturridge, quite possibly.

Regardless of whether Liverpool continue to search for a scorer who operates wider, or decide to chase another center forward, Liverpool must allow Sturridge to have the responsibility of being their main striker. No matter if he is given competition or support, it is up to Sturridge and his manager to make sure he's part of plenty of conversations down Walton Breck Road in the seasons to come. It won’t be easy, but neither is such expectation.


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