Sturridge injury reveals problems both obvious and hidden

Posted by Kristian Walsh

Cold, hard facts bring a cold, hard reality to Liverpool: The ankle injury to Daniel Sturridge, which sees him sidelined for two months, is a massive loss. It is one that could ultimately deny them Champions League football.

In the 12 league games Sturridge has appeared in this season, he has scored nine goals. Of the 24 goals Liverpool scored before Steven Gerrard's free kick against Hull, 19 of them have come since Sturridge and Luis Suarez were reunited for the Sunderland match, with the pair contributing 14 toward that total. Most alarmingly of all, the other five have come from set-pieces, usually from the vicious right foot of Gerrard.

The presence of Sturridge, and the impact it has on the team, is evident. On the basest possible level, he is a goal scorer -- a player who delights in collecting the ball and moving toward goal, always looking for the smidgen of netting to fire the ball toward. He also likes to drop deep and create, something that helps his partnership with the gallivanting Suarez even further.

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It's obvious why Sturridge will be missed. Liverpool are a better team with him, both because of what he is capable of individually and collectively with his teammates. His pace is an asset -- especially in a side so bereft of it -- with defences dropping deeper in fear of what he can do; that allows space around the 18-yard box for players to operate and supply both Sturridge and Suarez.

It's obvious, too, the problems his absence will cause the rest of the team. Though Suarez can play alone, and did do for the first few months of last season, he is less effective without the space afforded by Sturridge.

The Uruguayan's mentality also shifts without his striking partner. His shoulders hunch and his eyes focus on nowhere but the ball as he tries to duck and dive through the four defenders who mark him tightly. Even with Philippe Coutinho and Jose Enrique, Suarez's main two on-pitch sparring partners in the absence of Sturridge, he finds it more difficult without his partner nearby to move defenders away.

Sunday, and Liverpool's journey on the highway to Hull, offered a grave glimpse into life without Sturridge. Suarez was crowded out, though being flanked by Victor Moses and Raheem Sterling -- two players in desperate form and desperate to find some -- did little to ease the pressure upon him. Hull were compact and organised, their three central defenders attentive to Suarez's every move.

But Liverpool did not lose simply because there was no Sturridge in the side. He may, of course, have found the net if he had played alongside Suarez; he may have pushed Hull toward their own goal, allowed Moses and Sterling more time on the ball and, as he did at Goodison Park a week before, salvage a point for Liverpool. Truly, Sturridge can be worth two goals, even if not as the scorer of them himself.

Yet his absence was just one aspect of a pretty insufferable afternoon. This, ultimately, is the knockout blow for Brendan Rodgers. As much as Sturridge will be missed for what he can do, he also will be missed as it will highlight -- in full, gory Technicolor -- what the rest of his teammates cannot do. He may have won a point for Liverpool at Hull on Sunday, but instead the problems of the squad all came to full attention. On the first day of Christmas advent, a horror show like no other under Rodgers awaited behind the window.

Conclusions should not be drawn from one game -- a game, in a similar style to the 3-1 defeat at Southampton in March, that was founded on the oddities of Rodgers' tactics. Liverpool, inexplicably narrow despite having two wingers on the pitch (as compensation for no Sturridge, perhaps), played to the strengths of Steve Bruce's 3-4-1-1 system with their wide players given licence to create.

Make no mistake, though Liverpool have a squad with some good players, the Sturridge-Suarez tandem has served as a welcome distraction to problems. Those statistics -- nine in 12, 14 in 19, two-of-a-kind -- are not only incredible, but incredibly chastening to the rest of the team.

With no Sturridge, there is pressure from midfield to score goals, but Lucas Leiva has scored one league goal in his Anfield career, Jordan Henderson is not offering what he should and Gerrard, their best attacking midfielder, is only used as a set-piece quarterback. With fewer goals scored, there is an expectation for fewer goals to be conceded, but Liverpool shipped three goals in consecutive league games for the first time since 1998. The resilience and steadfast refusal to waver of the first three games has vanished.

One game, one bad game, is not enough to decree Liverpool are finished for the season -- but Sturridge's injury may serve as an unwelcome lightbulb over Melwood. Was this player actually playing well, or was it clouded by what Sturridge and Suarez produced? Was that midfield truly functional, or did Suarez and Sturridge make it seem so? The answer, one suspects, might not be the right one for Liverpool.

The next few months could be an eye-opener. Rodgers must now sort out both his defence and midfield, for his attack no longer comes with the guarantee of chances and goals. It already has opened some eyes regarding the summer transfer window, where questions are asked as to why Liverpool failed to sign one player regarded as a genuine first-team starter (even though Mamadou Sakho, at £17 million, should be). The failed pursuits of Diego Costa and Henrikh Mkhitaryan now take more pertinence with Sturridge's ills.

A defeat to Hull is not worthy of an entire reshuffle because results like that always happen to Liverpool. The parallels to a 3-1 away defeat to Reading in December 2007, when Liverpool went down to a boisterous home support to provide all a hard kick of reality, are remarkable -- Gerrard even equalised before Reading outperformed them.

But it does give a gentle nudge -- or for Rodgers, a violent shove -- as to the importance of Sturridge both as a goal scorer and a foil for Suarez, and that things cannot just carry on without him. Tweaks must be made, as those figures cannot be interpreted or thought of in any other way. Rodgers can tighten up the defence; he can figure out the devil's favourite dinner-table discussion, the midfield; he can use Moses, Sterling or Iago Aspas as a like-for-like Sturridge replacement in style, if not necessarily substance.

If this Sturridge injury forces another adjustment to the defence, or maybe even another longing look at the midfield in January (it now, it seems, is possible they need an entirely new one), then the two months of a striker's pain may offer a long-term gain. But by then, the Champions League may be a distant whim.


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