Liverpool's dependency on Daniel Sturridge must be addressed
In his relatively short time as Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp has fielded more questions about one topic than any other. Every news conference seems to lead off with a question on the status of a player who has barely been available to the German in the five months or so since he took over the Anfield hot seat from the sacked Brendan Rodgers.
As frustrating as it must be for Klopp to continually be grilled on the fitness and availability of Daniel Sturridge, he knows exactly why there is such an obsession from media and supporters alike when it comes to the England frontman. Sturridge has started only two games under Klopp, but the Reds have scored six goals in each of them. The team have consistently had problems scoring goals for the past two seasons, yet the presence of just one man transforms them.
Sturridge wasn't even at his best in the 6-0 win over Aston Villa on Sunday, but he's a natural goal scorer and always carries that threat even if he's having a relatively quiet game. He came up with the all-important opening goal, but it's not just what he does individually that is so vital for Liverpool, it's also the effect he has on those around him. Teammates are visibly lifted by his presence, and with him on the field, they rightly believe they can beat anybody.
While any assessment of Sunday's demolition job at Villa Park needs to be tempered by the realisation of just how dreadful the home side were, there is no question that Liverpool look a completely different side when Sturridge is out there doing his thing. When he last returned from injury to inspire Liverpool to a 6-1 win at Southampton in the Capital One Cup back in December, the sky appeared to be the limit for the Merseysiders.
He then picked up what was initially thought to be a minor hamstring pull after coming off the bench in a 2-0 loss to Newcastle at St James' Park a few days later, yet did not play again until last week's FA Cup defeat at West Ham. In the two months in between, much of the early feel-good factor of Klopp's appointment had been eroded due to a succession of poor results and injuries to key players, particularly in attack.
Sturridge returns to a side that are way off the pace in the Premier League and have just been eliminated from the FA Cup but still have plenty to play for between now and the end of the season. His return, for however long it lasts, could not have been more perfectly timed. The Europa League resumes this week, and winning that competition is now Liverpool's best -- most would say only -- hope of securing Champions League football next season. There's also the small matter of the Capital One Cup final to look forward to.
Of course, Sturridge is not the only attacker Klopp has been able to welcome back in the past week. Philippe Coutinho marked his comeback with a goal at West Ham last week and a couple of brilliant assists on Sunday. He's the second-most important player the Reds have and is a supremely talented footballer, but he has often looked ordinary without the movement and quality of Sturridge ahead of him.
Divock Origi is back, too. The young Belgian had been showing some encouraging signs before pulling a hamstring against Leicester City on Boxing Day, and he wasted little time on Sunday reminding everyone just what he can do. He replaced Sturridge after an hour, and within seconds he was racing through onto a beautiful Coutinho pass to make it 4-0.
All three are important, yet Coutinho and Origi were around earlier in the season when Liverpool often struggled. Since Sturridge signed for the club in January 2012, however, whenever he's been fit and on the field Liverpool, have mostly looked as good as anyone. He scores goals, but he also strikes fear into opponents and -- as great players tend to do -- he raises the level of those around him.
Unfortunately, he has been unavailable for so long with such a wide range of ailments that it's difficult for Kopites to get too enthusiastic about his latest return to action, because any excitement at what they see is understandably accompanied by trepidation as to when he will inevitably break down again. Hopefully he can stay fit for at least another couple of weeks, as Liverpool have that Wembley date with one of his old clubs, Manchester City, at the end of this month.
Liverpool's fortunes should not depend so heavily on one man, of course, especially one whose body is incapable of shouldering the burden, but this is a situation they find themselves in largely because of their own ineptitude in the transfer market. The big-money strikers brought in to ease the burden up front have not delivered.
Mario Balotelli failed spectacularly, and while there is still some hope, slim as it may be, that perhaps Christian Benteke might still prove useful, he is never going to be "the man." He may yet become a nice complementary piece, but he's not going to fill the gaping chasm left by the departed Luis Suarez or the perennially unavailable Sturridge.
Perhaps Roberto Firmino can eventually develop into that player, but he's not there yet even though he has taken his form up a couple of notches in recent weeks. Having that genuine star quality at the top end of the pitch can make all the difference. Leicester and Spurs are challenging for the title this year because they have it, whereas Liverpool have been left behind because they have not, at least not until now. On the rare occasions they have had it -- "it" of course being Sturridge -- the results are there for all to see.
Finding that top-level match winner who can both complement as well as fill in for Sturridge when he's unavailable has to be Klopp's No. 1 priority this summer. For this season, though, Liverpool will go as far Sturridge's health takes them, so let's hope Klopp has plenty of cotton wool in which to wrap his star man.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.