The man who has a better league goalscoring rate than his team-mate Luis Suárez could boost England's World Cup hopes
It is a familiar sight in this winter of deluge: Daniel Sturridge pointing to the sky, past the rain and clouds and towards the heavens. The Liverpool striker likes to pray; right now he seems to have a hotline to his maker. Not only has he scored in eight consecutive Premier League games – and 22 times in 26 matches this season – but he is the huge favourite to lead the line for England at the World Cup this summer. It is some turnaround for a player who left Chelsea 13 months ago with an undistinguished record of 13 goals in 63 appearances.
This season Sturridge has scored every 83 minutes in the league – which, incredibly, is better than Cristiano Ronaldo (a goal every 84 minutes), Luis Suárez (one every 86 minutes), Lionel Messi (every 95 minutes) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (every 97 minutes). Only Sergio Agüero, who averages a goal every 80 minutes, is more prolific in the major European leagues.
When asked to explain this rise into the upper echelons of the goalscoring ranks, the certainty Sturridge displays in front of goal deserts him. "I don't even really know," he said. "The manager has shown faith in me to give me an opportunity in the position that I've always played in … I've got faith in God. I pray a lot and I'm just focused totally on my job."
But there is another explanation beyond the positional or metaphysical. Sturridge's purple patch is not a wild aberration or statistical outlier. He has always been talented – as he showed by scoring eight goals in 11 games while on loan at Bolton in 2011 and nine in 19 Premier League appearances under André Villas-Boas at Chelsea – he just needed greater opportunities to show it.
True, in 129 Premier League matches, Sturridge has scored 54 goals – a bit under one every other game. But the unvarnished statistics mask the real picture: at Manchester City and Chelsea he was a bit-part actor in a giant theatre ensemble: he got a short scene here, a cameo there. Of those 129 Premier League appearances, 54 were as a substitute.
When you look at Sturridge's goal tally per 90 minutes in the Premier League across his career a dramatically different picture emerges. He has scored an average of 0.69 league goals per 90 minutes. That puts him ahead of all the other great Liverpool strikers in the Premier League era, including Michael Owen (0.59 goals every 90 minutes), Fernando Torres (0.53), Robbie Fowler (0.52) and, yes, Suárez (0.64).
More impressively still, Sturridge's tally puts him above Robin van Persie (0.68 goals per 90 minutes), Alan Shearer (0.61) and Ronaldo (0.52) when he was in the Premier League. In fact, Opta's stats show that only three players in Premier League history have scored at a better rate than Sturridge: Agüero (0.78 per 90), Thierry Henry (0.74) and Ruud van Nistelrooy (0.70).
In some ways it is understandable that Sturridge's ability was overlooked for so long. He is not a pricey foreign orchid or a delicate bud in the first stages of bloom. He is a 24-year-old from Birmingham, who flowered a little later than others. But the exciting thing for Liverpool and England is that Sturridge could yet get better.
Playing alongside Suárez undoubtedly helps: the Uruguayan not only leads the league in assists but he is a distraction and a tease: he attracts defenders' eyes that might otherwise be focused elsewhere. But Sturridge has scored when Suárez has been absent and when Liverpool have been more defensive.
Of course, he does not glitter in every game: he was unusually wasteful in the FA Cup fifth-round match against Arsenal, while during the 4-0 win against Everton Sturridge went for his hat-trick rather than play in Suárez, much to the Uruguayan's disgust. Yet there is scant evidence that Sturridge is greedy. This season his average shots per 90 minutes (4.03) is lower than Agüero, Messi, Suárez and Ibrahimovic, who all average between five and six shots per 90 minutes, and Ronaldo, who averages 7.88. And who can blame Sturridge for letting fly when his shot conversion rate – the number of shots resulting in a goal – is 30%, better than Agüero (25.9%), Messi (23.7%), Suárez (22.3%) and Ronaldo (17.6%).
Sturridge also does better than Messi, Ronaldo and co in another Opta stat: big chances converted – a measure of how successful a player is at converting one-on-ones or shots close to goal. In fact, wherever you look the data tells you the same thing: Sturridge is the real deal.
Brendan Rodgers has learned how to make best use of him. The question is whether Roy Hodgson can do so too. Certainly the idea of Sturridge leading the line, with Wayne Rooney behind him, supported by two free spirits out wide, makes you wonder whether England's Brazilian adventure might be less rickety than expected.
Sturridge's scoring run cannot go on forever, of course. He only has to look at his partner at Liverpool to realise that. But right now he is bubbling and the future seems effervescent with possibilities.