The pre-season for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool was meant to be a time for high profile new arrivals to start feeling their way into the club, and for precocious youngsters to push for a spot in the first-team squad.
But the surprise package to emerge from the Kop club’s fixtures to date is not Naby Keita or Fabinho, Curtis Jones or Rafael Camacho – it’s the Reds’ forgotten man: Daniel Sturridge.
A player who was expected to be lined up to go out again on loan or even be sold has suddenly forced his way back into the reckoning.
“Studge” was a lethal part of Liverpool’s “SSS” strike force in 2013-14 (Sturridge, Suarez and Sterling) that almost led the Merseysiders to their first league title success in nearly 25 years.
Suarez led the goalscoring feats with 31 in the Premier League that season but Sturridge managed an impressive 21, a number which compares very favourably to Roberto Firmino’s 15 and Sadio Mane’s 10 last term.
I know it’s only pre-season but Sturridge looks back to his own self.— Kaneyy 🏴 (@Kaneyy_) July 19, 2018
Mane Sturridge Salah
Robbo Virgil Lovren TAA
In his pomp the Birmingham-born 28-year-old was just as good as those two members of Liverpool’s current “Fab Four”.
And with Philippe Coutinho now well established at Barcelona and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out injured for the season, there is currently an opening in that magnificent quartet.
The role requires someone like Coutinho or the Ox who can be both supplier and goal scorer – and also has the ability to step into the front line if required.
The thinking was that Lyon’s Nabil Fekir would play that role, but with his transfer falling through after a mysterious medical – and Adam Lallana still working his way back to his best following injury – Liverpool are now left searching for other options.
With around three weeks to go until the August 9 transfer window deadline, Jurgen Klopp has declared that Liverpool’s off-season spending spree is done. Even so, Sturridge could feel like a new acquisition.
Those who have watched Sturridge struggle with a catalogue of injury problems over the past three years – or his abortive loan spell at West Brom – will be astonished at this turn of events but the former England international seems to be benefitting from a fresh start.
So, you believed in Daniel Sturridge again? pic.twitter.com/OauwHcF6f8— Paul (@Kolology) July 22, 2018
There are three factors in this miraculous transformation.
Firstly Sturridge is – and long may it continue – injury-free and the rare healthy status seems to have given life to a more positive attitude.
“I’m enjoying myself and enjoying my football. I can’t ask for any more,” Sturridge told Liverpool’s official website in the USA the day after the Borussia Dortmund match, where again he was among the Reds’ best.
“I love it here. I love the lads and the banter in the group is unbelievable. I feel at home again.”
Strange thing to say as he never really left.
Each appearance so far this summer has provided a glimpse of the No15’s plentiful natural ability and predatory instincts in front of the goal – and the manager is noticing.
“The second-half without Daniel would have looked completely different,” Klopp said on Sunday after the 3-1 loss to the Bundesliga side.
With the returned fitness has also come a change in attitude.
The disastrous loan spell at the Baggies, where he played just six games as the Midlanders were relegated, has sharpened Sturridge’s survival instincts and more than ever he wants to be part of Klopp’s project.
“It was important for me to get my head in the right place and evolve as a person,” admits Sturridge.
“I had things that I needed to sort out with my family and things like that.
“I’m just happy to be back and to push myself and be part of the group again.
“I learned a lot watching the games the boys were playing in and also being away and being in a different team’s environment and seeing how they work too.”
Sturridge on Keita:— Henry Jackson (@HenryJackson87) July 23, 2018
“I haven’t seen a midfielder like him for a while, he is something different. It’s crazy. The things he can do with the ball – he can defend, he can pass, he can dribble, he is fast, he is strong. He has got everything."
Be excited, Reds.
The second factor is his on-field role seems to be changing.
Taking his cue from the ever revolving fab four – Studge has placed greater emphasis (self-imposed) on dropping deep to provide the goalscoring chances he used to finish.
In the Dortmund game alone he laid on superb chances for young strike partners Sheyi Ojo and Dominic Solanke – that Messrs Salah, Sane and Firmino would have gobbled up.
“I’m probably just doing more,” admitted Sturridge candidly.
“It’s important for me to try to get involved.
“Playing on the shoulder is what I like to do but it’s also important to come and get involved and get in and around the opposition’s No.6.
“It’s adding more strings to my bow and giving the manager more options if he needs to play me deeper.
“But wherever I play, it doesn’t matter – it’s just important to get the minutes.”
Despite adopting more of a playmaker role, Sturridge hasn’t lost his goal-poaching instincts and already nabbed three this season – two against Chester and another sweetly struck finish against Blackburn.
The third reason for Sturridge’s pre-season boost is his immediate understanding and rapport with Keita, a key part of Klopp’s plans.
The pair seemed to have developed an instant telepathy with Keita supplying some superb balls to a perfectly placed Sturridge and vice-a-versa.
Klopp must be tantalized to see how this partnership could develop.
These three factors plus the late returns of some of the Reds’ World Cup participants, opens a rare door for Sturridge.
The Premier League campaign gets under way in three weeks’ time when the Reds take on West Ham at Anfield.
With youngsters like Solanke, Divock Origi and Ojo not taking their chance to cement a spot, Sturridge is in prime position to be in that playing squad – even (depending on availability) in the starting XI.
It would then be up to him to hold his place.
But Sturridge is not focusing just on the Hammers – he is thinking long-term.
“My ambition is to train hard and work hard,” he concluded.
“There are a lot of games during the season so it’s about giving your all when you get your minutes.
“We want to win trophies and we want to be successful. It starts now and it’s a long season.
“It doesn’t matter whether you play the first game or the 50th game – as long as you’re involved in the journey that’s all that matters.”
And at the moment that is a journey that increasingly looks to involve Daniel Sturridge.
The German will celebrate his third anniversary as manager in October and, although he has brought plenty of excitement to Anfield, so far he has not managed to add any silverware.
Liverpool have lost in three finals under Klopp – the League Cup and Europa League in his first campaign and the Champions League last season – while finishing eighth, fourth and fourth in the Premier League.
Klopp said: “People will say that. It is the next step and we need to be ready for that. I cannot give guarantees here but I understand if people think that. I know about the expectations and that is completely normal.
“First of all we have to play the football that gives us an opportunity to win something. We cannot talk about winning something before we start the season.
“I am confident we can build on last season. It’s not that we lost things completely but you have to work on it to get it back. The football the boys played last year was not easy. There was a lot of work invested into playing like that. That’s what we will do again. I am not in doubt about our basis or that we will reach it again.
“Other teams, of course, will do transfer business as well. They will not be weaker than last year. City brought in (Riyad) Mahrez. I did not hear that they lost one player so far. So it means the quality of last year plus Mahrez. That’s a nice plan as well. United will go for it, too, and that’s completely normal.
“We expect more from ourselves. We will go again for the championship and each kind of cup but that does not mean I can sit here and we will get it. We have the highest ambitions, 100 per cent.”
Klopp has been working hard to integrate new arrivals Naby Keita and Fabinho into the squad, with Xherdan Shaqiri yet to join up with his new team-mates following his World Cup exploits.
A number of other key names are also still missing, and Klopp said: “I want to have the best start ever but we all know something can happen and it is all questioned in a second.
“I am in the third season and each season we have a period where a few people questioned me or our progress and all that stuff and in the end it was OK. I am prepared for these moments. I don’t want to have them but I will not go nuts and think we have lost everything.
“The new players will make us stronger 100 per cent. But it will not happen in the first day. It is all about staying calm, looking at the situation, judging it right and then make the step.”
Liverpool won three of their four matches against Manchester City last season, including both legs of their Champions League quarter-final, but finished 25 points behind them in the league.
Klopp believes consistency is the answer to closing the gap, saying: “It is not just that we have to be more consistent, we have to create circumstances where we can be more consistent. Nobody is consistent with 11 players. What we are working on is the depth of the squad.”
But what about the one that got away?
Watch below as we take you through all of Liverpool’s successes – and failures – in the window so far and ask the question – are the Reds finished yet?