Daniel Sturridge may not have been present in the flesh at Euro 2012, having failed to make the cut after a season in which he scored just three times for Chelsea after Christmas. But he was still a high-visibility presence across Poland and Ukraine’s host cities, peering down in Stalinist-scale reproduction – Sturridge awnings, vast scowling Sturridge tribute friezes – as part of a big budget series of car adverts.
If it seemed a little awkward that the chief goal threat for Team Hyundai Euro 2012 should end up spending his summer on the beach in Jamaica, it was tempting to see something apt about the whole affair. A genuine prodigy in his time – star of Manchester City’s youth team aged 16 – Sturridge still looked like a self-absorbed kind of talent two summers ago, a player with tricks and flicks and swerves who seemed every time he stepped out on to the pitch to be a little crowded, a little harried by the presence of all these other people, obstacles in his own private game of Sturridge-ball.
His progress in the last 18 months has been genuinely heartening. “I feel hurt, but maybe it is a blessing in disguise,” Sturridge told the Jamaica Observer during his Euros-summer beach holiday. “It’s going to spur me on to do better. It’s going to drive me to want more success and to be a better player.” So far: so footballer. And yet this is exactly what Sturridge has done, achieving the rare feat among Englishmen of improving dramatically as a footballer past his 23rd birthday after finding the right manager and the right system to explore consistently the outer reaches of his talent.
Sturridge was the leading English scorer in the Premier League last season. Last week he was bracketed in these pages by Zico alongside Oscar, Eden Hazard, Mario Götze, Paul Pogba and Thibaut Courtois as a young player to light up Brazil 2014. To date he has scored 39 goals in 56 matches since that £12m career-upgrade move to Liverpool and is only the third England player since 1966 – after Gary Lineker and Wayne Rooney – to travel to a World Cup as a fully fit first choice striker with a 20-goal domestic season behind him. Indeed, in a team of few stars it seems reasonable to suggest Sturridge has a fair claim on being England’s best player right now.
Enter: the Sturridge Paradox. In outline it looks genuinely baffling a player this good should still be unsure of his starting place in a middle-tier international team. Even after his sublime opening goal against Peru at Wembley last week – a shot whipped into the far corner while facing almost away from the goal, and hit so well that Raúl Fernández saw the ball all the way but could do nothing at all about it – Sturridge was still talking about working hard in training and hoping to catch Roy Hodgson’s eye. In the last week there has been further talk that England’s most obvious cutting edge may be dropped from the lineup to incorporate more graft in midfield against Italy in Manaus.
It is hard to find the logic here. There are few points of genuine strength in this England team, few obvious areas of overload opponents will struggle to match. Sturridge is one in his own right, a striker who on current goalscoring form – and alone among England players – would be close to the first XI of almost every other team at Brazil 2014.
There is a game you can play with Sturridge’s figures here. Across Europe’s top four leagues only Luis Suárez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa, Lionel Messi and Ciro Immobile scored more goals last season. Of these two are genius-level roaming attackers. Two more – Suárez and Costa – are injury doubts. Immobile, another itinerant late-bloomer, is even more likely to start on the bench. At the end of which Sturridge looks from the right angle like the most productive fully fit first-choice centre forward at the World Cup. Note to Roy: perhaps that midfield can look after itself in Manaus.
Certainly his 21 domestic league goals compare favourably among the main contenders. Brazil have Fred, who scored eight goals last season for Fluminense and Hulk who scored 17 times in Russia. Germany have picked only Miroslav Klose (eight goals last season) as a centre forward, retained by Joachim Löw as a kind of retro-ironic nod to orthodoxy, like a bowler hat on an East London hipster. Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored 12 times apiece last season. Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano failed to make it past 14. Sturridge trumps them all, and yet even in a transitional team he is still to find himself cradled beneath Hodgson’s wing as a first choice among the first choices.
Some will point to the imbalance caused by the ongoing Rooney Supremacy. There is a perception out there that Rooney’s automatic selection and preference for playing as a straight No10 are inhibiting Sturridge’s progress, producing a mismatched marriage of attacking methods. Certainly Sturridge-Rooney has yet to flower as a genuine partnership, but if Sturridge does seem to drift at times with England this is surely more a case of systems. In Hodgson’s favoured 4-2-3-1 that lone central striker is required to work and ferret and direct the angle of attack, to play at times with his back to goal.
This is not Sturridge’s best side. He has instead looked most at home in Liverpool’s mobile 4-3-3, where he can interchange to good effect with Luis Suárez and Raheem Sterling. Sturridge can discomfit a defence in this system without having to wrestle with his markers. His speed facing goal forces defenders to be mindful of the space behind them, while his habit of making diagonal runs from right to left is always likely to open gaps or draw a foul. In this system it is Suárez who has provided the hustle, the sense of always nipping at a defender’s heels. There is no reason why Rooney couldn’t be asked to do something similar with England. It would require a change of starting positions. But Hodgson has already gone with the wind once, adopting the 4-2-3-1 that already looks like a pair of last year’s bloomers at the top level, but which is still an upgrade on the two-banks-of-four at Euro 2012. Plus it is a Sturridge-centred system, designed very sensibly to bring the best out of England’s outstanding goalscorer of the season just gone.
There will of course be those who say this is a redundant debate, that the age of the central striker has passed, that the more possession-savvy nations have looked “post-centre forward” for some time now. Germany will be more concerned with getting the best out of their assorted number tens and false nines than worrying about the lack of a Carsten Jancker. Against this: well, this is just how England play. Victories tend to come from isolated spikes of incision not a revolving weather front of finely-wrought pressure. The way England end up in tournament matches – deep defence against opponents who take more of the ball – might just suit a player who can choose his moment, a striker whose early swagger has settled down into a sense of stillness, an assassin’s patience.
When it comes to England centre forwards of the last 30 years there is a golden thread that runs through Gary Lineker (1984-1992), Alan Shearer (1992-2000), Michael Owen (1998-2008) and Rooney (2003 onwards). Right now Sturridge is out on his own as the next in line, a distinctly Lineker-ish figure with his fine-point craftsman’s finishing skills and that understated self-assurance. Currently he has four England goals. Lineker went to Mexico 86 with six, scored six more in three games and took the golden boot. It is of course too much to expect something similar. But more than any other player in England’s squad, Sturridge looks like a man ready to change gear.