Daniel Sturridge has emerged as a figure if not of ridicule then certainly of derision in the comments section of many Chelsea blogs, not least on this one. The feeling of uncertainty persists amongst matchday patrons as well with some backing the young forward and others left frustrated. His detractors base their complaints on his propensity to shoot on sight rather than seek out a teammate better placed to have a strike at goal. His apparent selfishness is seen as arrogance and not becoming of a youngster surrounded by more senior and decorated colleagues.
Another source of annoyance is Sturridge's tendency to give the ball away and subsequently either spurn an opportunity to put pressure on the opposition or to ease tensions when the team is under the cosh. Conversely, I’ve also heard plenty of supporters - with my season ticket neighbour at Stamford Bridge chief among them - bemoan a failure to take players on and instead cut inside or pass the ball centrally.
As I have said, there are detractors. But I am not one of them and here’s why.
To answer the criticisms in an orderly fashion, let’s start with Sturridge’s selfishness or - as I like to call it – confidence. Personally, I like my strikers to feel that they can hit the target from close range, long distance or a tight angle. It shows that they have faith in their own ability and certainly offers a more productive alternative to Fernando Torres who seems to want a written invitation before he has a pop on goal. Had Sturridge found himself in the same position as the Spaniard during the second half of the 3-3 draw with Manchester United - when the latter had the freedom of the penalty area to fire what would surely have been a match-winning goal but chose instead to cut onto his weaker left foot and see the opportunity evaporate - I am sure that the 22-year-old would have at least got a shot off even if he didn’t get the ball past David De Gea.
If you don’t shoot you don’t score, it’s as simple as that.
That is not to say that he always makes the right decision when he has the ball at his feet – I have let out more than a few expletives in exasperation at his efforts this season – but at least he’s being positive. While some think of Sturridge as arrogant, I prefer to see him as having copious amounts of self-belief, a commodity that is crucial for any footballer and especially one operating at one of Europe’s biggest clubs that has recently enjoyed the most successful period in its history. It’s no good being in awe of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba; you have to express yourself and show that you have the strength of character to assume responsibility in any given situation.
One factor that many forget when assessing Sturridge’s performances is that by trade he is a central striker that has been shoved out onto the flank due to his startling pace and the dominance of Drogba in the centre-forward role, not to mention the enormous investment in Torres by Roman Abramovich. He was prolific in his preferred position for Bolton during his loan spell at the Reebok Stadium last season – eight goals in 12 games – and it was a shame that Andre Villas-Boas didn’t make him the focal point of the attack during Drogba’s absence at the Africa Cup of Nations. Despite misgivings, he has responded pretty well to his remit on the wings, netting nine times in the Premier League and being involved in many of Chelsea’s better attacking moments even if he hasn’t always played the final pass to see his name illuminated in that modern barometer of worth - the assists table.
Admittedly, decision making can be his downfall. Sometimes he attempts to take the ball past the defender when he should pass while on other occasions he offloads possession when a more direct approach might be more beneficial. But remember, Sturridge is still only 22 and being asked to play out of position. Surely, he should be afforded a few mistakes while he is still learning. In contrast, the level of support given to Torres has been quite astonishing seeing as he has looked more like Chris Sutton than Peter Osgood during his time at The Bridge. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against the former Liverpool striker. His trials and tribulations have been agonising to watch and I want him to succeed as much as the next man. However, for some reason he is allowed to disappear from games, miss gilt-edged chances or pass the ball with the goal begging and still get roared on by the crowd and get the unconditional backing of Chelsea fans across the world. Meanwhile, Sturridge does not even have a song in his honour despite the fact that in the first part of the season he seemed like the only player in a blue shirt that had any idea what that rectangular thing at the end of the pitch with a net attached to it was for. If you discount penalties, then he sits top of the list of the club’s goalscorers in the league this season
In Wednesday night’s defeat at Man City, Sturridge was sorely missed. With backs against the wall and pace desperately needed to exploit counter-attacking opportunities and stretch the Citizens’ makeshift back four, his presence could have made a big difference. After all, it was his bit of magic in the reverse fixture in December that set up Raul Meireles for the equalising goal which formed the catalyst for an impressive victory over Robert Mancini’s previously unbeaten team and it was his endeavour that earned the match-winning penalty. I can understand Roberto Di Matteo’s desire to keep as many key players fresh as possible with the must-win game against Tottenham hoving into view and the quarter final of the Champions League coming hot on its heels, but the England international was nevertheless conspicuous by his absence at the Etihad Stadium.
If Chelsea are to succeed in creating a new young team while remaining competitive and within Financial Fair Play regulations, the progress and persistence with Sturridge is absolutely vital. With that in mind, it’s time all the supporters got behind him and hailed the young Englishman as an indelible part of our club’s future. And a song or too wouldn’t do any harm either.
You can read more of Phil Lythell's opinions at ShoutyAndSpitty.com