How well the new striker and Luis Suárez link up for Liverpool remains to be seen after the win at Mansfield but Brendan Rodgers now has flexibility in attack
It was a match against the most limited opposition Liverpool will encounter all season but this felt like a particularly important debut for Daniel Sturridge. Before the game Brendan Rodgers had declared Sturridge would become Liverpool's first-choice centre-forward, implying that Luis Suárez would be forced to play a different role for the remainder of the season. "Daniel's best position is as a central striker," he said. "His best position will be straight through the middle with his pace."
For the trip to Field Mill not only did Rodgers throw Sturridge straight into the starting line-up in a central position but he rested Suárez. It meant Sturridge was unquestionably the star attraction – there was no danger of the Uruguayan frustrating him by taking up central positions, or making the same runs, and the perfect chance for the £12m signing to make the position his own.
It took seven minutes for Sturridge to get off the mark, with a cool right-foot finish from a Jonjo Shelvey through-ball. Sturridge, like Arsenal's Theo Walcott, has outlined his determination to play through the middle rather than wide on the right, pointing to Thierry Henry's tactical transformation as an inspiration. This opening goal was reminiscent of the Frenchman – starting in the inside-left channel and receiving a pass that bisected the opposition centre-backs, before finishing first-time towards the far post.
The calibre of opposition made it difficult to gauge how effective Sturridge will be in the Premier League but his relationship with Shelvey was unquestionably promising. The young midfielder was afforded far too much space and repeatedly played clever passes in behind the defence – Sturridge should have grabbed a second after a move that was a mirror image of the first goal. Stewart Downing and Suso stayed wide, pulling the Mansfield full-backs towards the touchlines and increasing the amount of space the centre-backs were forced to cover. Against a player of Sturridge's pace, and with a disorganised offside trap, they stood little chance.
The debutant's performance is likely to influence Rodgers' selection for next weekend's trip to Old Trafford and he says Suárez will be happy to change role. "The idea was bringing in players that were multi-functional, who can play in a couple of positions," Rodgers said after the game, indicating that the duo will be switched from week to week. "I'll consider each game, depending on the opponent, when we see the areas we can exploit." Suárez, in the most prolific season of his career, with Ajax, was used on the right of a front three.
Yet it is a significant gamble to move him away from a permanently central role. It is only in 2012-13 that the Uruguayan has converted his significant talent into sheer efficiency in the Premier League – he is the second-top goalscorer with 15, one behind Robin van Persie. Previously Suárez's meagre goal return at Liverpool was the most blatant weakness in his game, which was at least partly attributable to him being deployed in a variety of positions under Kenny Dalglish – sometimes up front alone, sometimes just off Andy Carroll, sometimes wider in a front three.
For fitness reasons Suárez replaced Sturridge against Mansfield, rather than played alongside him, denying us the opportunity to see how they will combine in future. Suárez grabbed the controversial second goal, staking his own claim for that central position.
Statistics indicate that Sturridge's chance conversion rate is superior to Suárez's in the past couple of years but that does not necessarily mean he would be a more potent striker. Suárez remains such a tricky opponent because of his sheer persistence and determination – he has recorded 123 shots in the Premier League this season, 34 more than any other player. A large proportion of those attempts are half-chances he creates for himself, something Sturridge is less capable of. You can forgive Suárez for failing to score from situations few others would find themselves in, especially when finding the net so frequently.
Fabio Borini will return to training this week after recovering from a broken foot, which means that all of Liverpool's first-choice front three will be quick, versatile attackers, all capable of playing wide or through the centre. Suso and Raheem Sterling, both overplayed at such an early stage of their career, can become the alternative rather than the default. Suddenly Liverpool have a plethora of attacking options. Suárez has scored 44% of Liverpool's goals this season – only Newcastle have been more reliant on one striker, the recently departed Demba Ba – and Sturridge will help Liverpool spread the goals around.
Leon Britton's successful debut Premier League season saw him rightly hailed as a reliable, intelligent passer of the ball – and in 2012-13, opposition coaches have become aware of his threat, often trying to press him in order to break up Swansea's passing.
But while Britton is useful as a functional, robotic distributor of the ball, his midfield partner Ki Sung-Yeung is becoming increasingly important to Swansea. Against Arsenal, he was often the man to play the first dangerous pass into the final third, and was allowed too much freedom in the centre of the pitch.
It is no surprise that Ki creates more chances than Britton, who keeps things simple, but it is interesting to learn his pass completion rate is superior too. Arsenal have now had two opportunities to assess Swansea's passing up close in recent weeks, and should be aware of Ki's creative threat in next week's replay.
In a third round featuring a number of drawn matches, there were very few big-name casualties – of the 20 Premier League sides, only Newcastle lost to opposition from outside the top flight, at Brighton, while Chelsea comfortably defeated fellow Premier League side Southampton.
A key feature was the Premier League clubs' use of the bench. No fewer than eight clubs featured a goalscoring substitute – Lukas Podolski for Arsenal, Michu for Swansea, Robin van Persie for Manchester United, Andreas Weimann for Aston Villa, Connor Wickham for Sunderland, Marcos Lopes for Manchester City, Frank Lampard for Chelsea and Luis Suárez for Liverpool.
The impacts of Suárez, Van Persie and Michu were particularly decisive and indicate the incredible strength in depth the top division clubs can boast – the three players at the top of the Premier League goalscoring charts were all part-rested, then introduced to provide crucial goals late on.