One year ago Daniel Sturridge’s development seemed to be stalling. He appeared to be joining the quickly growing list of post-Abramovich era teenage sensation busts. Although a return of 5 goals in 20 appearances in his first season for the Blues wasn’t bad, especially considering many were from the bench, Sturridge simply seemed unable to step up for the big games. That 4 of his goals were in the FA Cup against Watford, Preston North End, and Cardiff City didn’t help his status. Neither did his sole Premier League goal that came in the 7-0 demolition of Stoke City as Chelsea steamrolled to the title.
Not to say his football was poor. He was simply inconsistent, and at times, apparently a bit uninspired with his decision making. But there was no doubting the potential that lay inside him. The question ultimately was whether or not Sturridge would get enough first-team football at Chelsea to develop his game with much needed top-level experience. With Drogba and Anelka ahead of him in the pecking order, more sub appearances and Cup starts were all that awaited in his second season, meaning no discernible evolution from his first. And with Chelsea rumored to be in the market for a new striker, confirmed with the eventual arrival of Fernando Torres in January 2010, confidence in him seemed to be low.
It was the first time in his career that Sturridge hit a wall. After acquiring the young striker from Coventry in controversial ways in 2003, Manchester City hoped for great things from Sturridge. In the FA Youth Cup he delivered on this promise when aged 16, the youngest of the squad, he scored 6 goals in the competition, including both in the 3-2 loss to Liverpool in the final. His emergence in the City first team was that of most success stories: the occasional substitute appearances, the rarer starts, all with that raw, unpolished talent that screamed potential the type of which causes daydreams among supporters.
Unfortunately for Sturridge, the arrival of Sheikh Mansour and his billions meant a wave of star strikers would soon make him an afterthought. It started with Robinho in 2008, with clear intent for more the following summer. With his contract running out in 2009, Sturridge decided against signing the contract renewal offer on the table. He turned out to be right when claiming a lack of chances would be available, with City eventually signing Roque Santa Cruz, Emmanuel Adebayor, and Carlos Tévez by the end of the 2009 summer transfer window. That he went to Chelsea angered City fans however, considering he would face the same issue in London. Sturridge’s thinking though was that Drogba and Anelka were reaching the latter stages of their careers, and so a quick apprenticeship under both would perfectly propel him into first team consideration. A healthy pay-bump also helped, of course.
The first six months of the 2010-11 season were at least memorable since they included a goal in his Champions League debut. Slightly more frequent playing time was at hand, especially with the team struggling after their bright, albeit brief, start to the season. He had 4 goals in 21 appearances, but once again coming against weak opposition in the form of Žilina and Ipswich Town. The same day that Torres signed for Chelsea, 31 January 2011, Sturridge went on loan to Bolton Wanderers.
It would prove to be the hurdle of the wall that halted his previously fast progress. 8 goals in 12 appearances in the Premier League, including several man of the match awards, saw Sturridge re-ignite the excitement that once surrounded him. He didn’t hesitate when asked what his success was down to, stating “The managers instilled a lot of confidence in me here and he has just told me to go out there and play my natural game and enjoy my football, just show people what I’m about. He’s given me the license to just try and do what I can do.”
That Owen Coyle was desperate to take Sturridge back on loan at the beginning of this season was not surprising, but it remained another question altogether whether Sturridge would break into Andres Villas-Boas’ team with three of the biggest-name strikers in recent history ahead of him. During Chelsea’s pre-season though, Villas-Boas showed he envisaged deploying Sturridge on the flanks rather than as lone striker in his preferred 4-3-3 system. This not only made perfect sense for Sturridge’s abilities, but perhaps more importantly, it effectively limited his competition on the right side against just Kalou and Anelka. That he was suspended for his first three games of the season wasn’t noticed by many.
Before the Sunderland match last Saturday, where Sturridge made his first appearance of the season, few predicted a start. Perhaps the give-away was when Villas-Boas said this before the match: “Sturridge never stopped training very, very well since his last game against Rangers where he scored twice. He is very competitive in training. Everyone saw the part he can play, not only in our pre season but at Bolton last year so it is a plus that he is available for selection and he can add to the team as well.” Or maybe it was even longer ago, when Villas-Boas first arrived at Chelsea and explained how he liked coaching his players: “I encourage freedom of choice in football. Players can only achieve their true potential if they are not shackled and are able to stand on their own two feet. Creativity in my players is important. I love the unpredictable part of the game. I strongly believe that players have to express themselves to their full potential, they must be able to make choices during the game.” Words that, in hindsight, sound surprisingly similar to how Sturridge described what gave him success under Coyle at Bolton.
A sensational back-heel goal capped off an all-around lively performance against Sunderland, with Sturridge also providing the assist for Terry’s opener. A second start in a week followed in the Champions League against Leverkusen on Tuesday, where him and Juan Mata shared man of the match honors. With a spot in the Chelsea first-team very much up for grabs, if Sturridge continues this run he may finally fullfil his potential and become a full-fledged star.
He fits perfectly into the Villas-Boas system. Capable of both creating and scoring, Sturridge combines all the skills the young Portuguese wants in a player. He is a quick thinker who retains possession well, and his physicality compliments his technical skills well. He has some classic Number 9 features, such as clinical finishing, fantastic form in his volley, and dangerous long range shooting. But he does so much more; constantly dragging players out of position with his mazy runs, he helps create space around him, drifting into open spaces in Chelsea’s evolving dynamic system. Complimented perfectly by Juan Mata on the opposite side, the two can become a feared duo flanking Torres (or whoever ends up claiming the lone-striker position).
In a since controversial interview to the Spanish media, Fernando Torres, when not calling some team-mates “slow”, also said: “Daniel Sturridge, who has been ruled out for some matches, is also an incredible player, maybe the one that surprised me the most since I came here.” Although the Spaniard doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in anything football right now, one would be naive to dismiss this claim about a special talent. Sturridge’s time in the spotlight could be just around the corner.
For highlights of Sturridge’s play while at Bolton, be sure to check out these great compilations by andreys0.