Last week, Daniel Sturridge and Jurgen Klopp discussed tactics through the media. After scoring twice against Burton in the league cup, Sturridge told journalists that he preferred to play up front rather than out wide.
“I’m a centre-forward. In the modern-day game, you have to try and be flexible but everyone knows my best position,” Sturridge said, adding: “I have to do a job for the team. That’s not saying I am happy to do it. That’s saying I have got to do a job for the team.”
Klopp replied that he saw Sturridge as the kind of wide player who can often get in the box and score. He complimented Sturridge for his intelligence and talent. Then he left him out of the team to play Tottenham. On 70 minutes, Klopp replaced Philippe Coutinho with a forward but it was Divock Origi rather than Sturridge, who didn’t seem to be working too hard to conceal his disgust.
It’s easy for supporters to see Sturridge’s attitude as selfish and egotistical–- to conclude that despite the lip service he paid to the principle that football is a team game, he actually thinks it’s a game that is all about Daniel Sturridge.
But they should also consider the type of person Sturridge is. He’s more of an artist than an athlete. That doesn’t just mean that he can do things with the ball that are beyond most of his team-mates. It also says something about his mentality. Sturridge is a natural performer, the kind of person who loves to show a crowd what he can do. It hurts when he feels he is prevented from doing that by being played out of position. Complaining about it might be a betrayal of the team ethic, but staying silent would be a betrayal of his gift. For an artist, that’s not a simple choice.
It's hard to think of a more alienating game for a football artist to have to watch than Tottenham v Liverpool last Saturday.
Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp both come from a school that prioritises perspiration over inspiration.
In teams like these, chances are not “created” by moments of insight from gifted individuals. They are generated by massive, structured, collective effort; the relentless application of choreographed patterns of pressing and counter-attack.
As Spurs and Liverpool ran furiously back and forth, winning the ball and immediately losing it again, you thought of Jorge Valdano’s famous “shit on a stick” critique of the Liverpool v Chelsea Champions League semi-final in 2007.
“[These two teams] are the clearest, most exaggerated example of the way football is going: very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical, and very direct,” Valdano said. “But, a short pass? Noooo. A feint? Noooo. A change of pace? Noooo. A one-two? A nutmeg? A backheel? Don’t be ridiculous. None of that.”
Valdano correctly identified that top-level football was an increasingly inhospitable environment for what used to be called “flair” players: “Such extreme intensity wipes away talent, leaving even a player of Joe Cole’s class disorientated.” Cole, of course, was an archetypal street footballer of the old school.
But he traced the root of the trend to the wrong place.
“Neither Mourinho nor Benítez made it as a player,” he said. “That has made them channel all their vanity into coaching. Those who did not have the talent to make it as players do not believe in the talent of players, they do not believe in the ability to improvise in order to win football matches.”
If Valdano hadn’t been preoccupied with the desire to insult Benitez and Mourinho, he might have perceived how silly it was to blame the collectivisation and intensification of football on the frustrated egomania of a few glory-hunting coaches.
The trend is driven by the athletic arms race that affects the whole world of sport. You could choose to opt out and concentrate on feints, nutmegs and backheels, but nine times out of ten the athletic pressing team will run you off the pitch.
Which brings us back to Sturridge. After Spurs and Liverpool drew, Gary Lineker tweeted “Don’t know what’s going on with Daniel Sturridge at Liverpool, but I do know, when fit he’ll score a lot more goals than Firmino or Origi.”
The weak point of the argument is that the words “when fit” are having to work harder than the full-backs in a Mauricio Pochettino team. The problem with Sturridge has never been that he doesn’t score enough. It’s that he doesn’t play enough.
Sturridge is 27 on Thursday and has played 234 club matches, scoring 93 goals. By the time he was Sturridge's age, Wayne Rooney had played more than 450 matches for his clubs and scored nearly 200 goals. Robbie Keane had played almost 400 and scored almost 150. Luis Suarez had played more than 350 matches, scoring more than 200 times. Managers prefer players who don't miss games. As Slaven Bilic recently said of Andy Carroll, "The worst situation is when you plan, then you can't count on him. All the time." (Carroll, like Sturridge, was born in 1989, and for all his many injuries he has still played more club matches than Sturridge).
Sturridge’s frequent absences had already given Klopp reason enough to doubt his worth before the player started issuing guidelines on which positions he’d rather not have to play.
A parting of the ways looks likely. If he does leave Anfield, it’s another disappointment for lovers of street footballers.
It gets easier once you accept that today’s top-level football is nothing like the game you used to play on the street.