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15th Sep 2016

How Jurgen Klopp set about redefining Daniel Sturridge’s Liverpool career

Treating him mean, or at least not indulging him, is keeping him keen

Tony Barrett

One of the things that sets Daniel Sturridge apart, other than his ability as a finisher, is that he isn’t afraid of letting people know what he thinks.

Pick him out wide and he’ll admit that isn’t where he wants to play. Leave him warming up on the touchline and bring someone else on as substitute in his stead and no one will need a body language expert to know that he isn’t impressed.

None of this is new either. After joining Chelsea from Manchester City seven years ago, he publicly rejected claims that the move was motivated by money, saying it was due to City having “seven or eight players in my position.” When a similar situation occurred at Chelsea, he went public with his frustrations, making it plain that he was not prepared to be a bit-part player while Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres hogged the limelight.

After his England bow against Sweden in November 2011, Sturridge revealed that how he had been deployed had not been ideal. “I was playing on the wing and it’s difficult, but it was great to get my debut, so I’m happy,” he said.

“I just want to continue playing for Chelsea and from there I want to start playing as a striker, and then from there try and play for England as a striker. That’s my aim – to be a number nine for England. I want to stake my claim as a striker, that’s the position I want to play Hopefully, the England manager will see me as a striker and give me an opportunity there, because that’s where I believe I am best.”

LENS, FRANCE - JUNE 16: Daniel Sturridge of England celebrates England's second goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group B match between England and Wales at Stade Bollaert-Delelis on June 16, 2016 in Lens, France. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

So at the end of last month when Sturridge admitted he wouldn’t say he was happy at having been played wide in an attacking trident in Liverpool’s defeat at Burnley there was no sensation. Neither was there shock when he greeted Jurgen Klopp’s decision to bring Divock Origi on at Spurs rather than himself with a dramatic stare that left no one in any doubt about his feelings.

These instances were just the continuation of a theme that has been a part of his career since it began: Sturridge knows when he wants to play (whenever he is fit to do so), where he wants to play (as a central attacker) and when either of these preferences are not realised he isn’t going to pretend to be happy.

The question is where does this leave him with Klopp and the answer is exactly where the Liverpool manager wants him. Klopp’s man management style is often obscured by the man hugs, manic laughs and an effusive public persona that made him the favourite manager of many neutrals before his arrival at Anfield. The reality is that behind the smiles there is a ruthlessness and a steel that is designed to enforce his core belief that no player is so good that they should be indulged and all players should be subordinate to the team ethic.

Upon his arrival as manager almost a year ago, the Liverpool that Klopp first experienced was one that was overly reliant on Sturridge. It was a relationship that was good for neither player nor team.

For Sturridge’s part, it felt like he was always under pressure to play with regular bulletins on his fitness prompting either delight or despair. The weight of expectation on him was not ideal, particularly as physically he was not in the right condition to live up to it.

during the Capital One Cup Final match between Liverpool and Manchester City at Wembley Stadium on February 28, 2016 in London, England.

For the team, an acceptance had been allowed to fester that they would struggle to score often enough to be competitive whenever Sturridge was unavailable.

Almost exactly a year ago, Sturridge made his first start since April 2015 and marked his return from hip surgery with two typically well taken goals in a 3-2 win against Aston Villa. Understandably, Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool’s then manager, could not hide his delight but he also reinforced the message that without their star striker the club would have to lower its ambitions. “We haven’t scored three goals since he last started a game,” Rodgers said. “He gives you a big opportunity to win games and compete at the top end of the table. He is a fantastic talent and now the job is hopefully he can stay fit.” 

Liverpool’s relationship with Sturridge had become mutually harmful and for Klopp reversing that dynamic so that one would be able to bring out the best in the other and vice versa was a priority assignment. From now on, there would be no over-reliance, no indulgence and no buying into the idea that Liverpool could not flourish without him.

Klopp’s attitude was that not only would Sturridge have to prove his full fitness before being considered for selection, he would also have to fight for his place and the only way to ensure that happened was by empowering other players.

Almost 12 months on, that process is complete. Not only is Sturridge said to be in his best physical condition for some time, Liverpool have established themselves as the Premier League’s most prolific goalscorers having struck 50 times in this calendar year. If Sturridge plays – as he did to great effect in the 4-1 win against Leicester City last weekend – great, but if he doesn’t Liverpool now have alternatives who are proving themselves increasingly effective with Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane, Divock Origi all helping to banish the time when the absence of one player could neuter their entire attack.

PASADENA, CA - JULY 27: Sadio Mane #19 of Liverpool in action against Chelsea during the 2016 International Champions Cup at Rose Bowl on July 27, 2016 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

That Klopp has achieved this with only one major addition to his front line in Mane is testament to both the quality of some of the players that he inherited but also his ability to get the best out of them, primarily by showing belief in all of his attackers and creating genuine competition for places.

The latter development ensures that when Liverpool face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Friday night, Sturridge is not guaranteed to start despite how impressive he was against Leicester. The same goes for Philippe Coutinho, one who has always previously been able to take his place for granted.

If Sturridge does not start he will not be happy and nor should he be. Klopp, more than anyone else, would expect nothing else. But the Liverpool manager will also know that picking a starting eleven without Sturridge in it will not, as was the case before his arrival, prevent his team from carrying a significant goal threat. Since taking over from Rodgers last October, Klopp has seen Liverpool score three or more goals on 14 occasions, starting with last season’s visit to Stamford Bridge, with Sturridge starting just five of those games.

A creative tension has been forged, one that is bringing out the best in several Liverpool players and one which, as a by-product, removes some of the burden that Sturridge had been under.

Klopp probably would not agree that what he has been giving Sturridge is tough love but there has been a definite shift from over-indulgence and over-reliance to treating the team’s most talented player the same as all of the others and the rewards of this approach are there for all to see.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 24: Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool and Daniel Sturridge look on during a Liverpool press conference ahead of their UEFA Europa League round of 32 second leg match against FC Augsburg at Melwood Training Ground on February 24, 2016 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Klopp has shown Sturridge that Liverpool can find a way without him and in turn that has sharpened Sturridge’s desire to be a part of things, not that he ever wanted anything else contrary to widespread perception.

A popular member of the dressing room, Sturridge is often the last to leave the club’s Melwood training ground such is his commitment to being in the best physical shape that he can possibly be.

There is no question that he has a different mindset to Luis Suarez, who rarely troubled Liverpool’s physios and on one of the rare occasions that he did went out and scored four goals against Norwich City despite a tight hamstring.

But such comparisons have always been unfair anyway because Suarez is a physical and mental freak whereas Sturridge, like most other human beings, says when something doesn’t feel right and wants it to be corrected.

There have never been phantom injuries but it was a case of breaking a cycle of repeat injury, absence and doubt which was undermining Sturridge’s attempts to be fit at the same time as feeling the pressure caused by seeing the team struggle in his absence and being told continuously how much he was needed.

Key to reversing that trend has been Klopp’s insistence that Sturridge has to prove his fitness absolutely after any injury. The forward had been desperate to play in Liverpool’s opening game of this season but having struggled with a minor hip complaint in the final weeks of pre-season, Klopp informed him that he would only select him again once he had completed a series of training sessions without any further problems. Liverpool scored four goals against Arsenal and Sturridge has been available ever since. Treating him mean, or at least not indulging him, is keeping him keen.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 14: Sadio Mane of Liverpool and team mates celebrate his goal with Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool at Emirates Stadium on August 14, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

From the outside, the dynamic between Klopp and Sturridge might seem strained but the reverse is true.

Klopp admires Sturridge’s professionalism, his commitment to eating the right things, living the right way and his determination to be the best that he possibly can be and, more than anything, he recognises that his is a talent that, if utilised to the full, can give Liverpool an added dimension, albeit not one which is so vital that they become unable to function when it is not available.

Sturridge, regardless of any public displays of frustration, recognises that Klopp has his and his team’s best interests at heart and has responded accordingly. The intrigue that their relationship prompts will inevitably continue, particularly if Sturridge does not start against Chelsea, but as things stand it it is healthy for both involved and, most importantly, for Liverpool.

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