Liverpool's attacking trident is thriving at Anfield as Daniel Sturridge kicks his heels
If Daniel Sturridge hadn't seen it coming, he should have done.
Like a pass so obvious that the opposition anticipate and intercept without exertion, Jurgen Klopp had telegraphed his decision to drop his main striker long before it was confirmed. The routine is now familiar – first Sturridge is excused, then he is praised and then, finally, he is left out.
That increasingly familiar process began on Monday night after an ineffective Sturridge had been the first player withdrawn during Liverpool's goalless draw against Manchester United. Sensing that this was an issue that would inevitably be raised in the post-match press conference, Klopp resisted any temptation to throw the forward under a bus, choosing instead to used the one that Jose Mourinho had parked as a diversion.
“It was a really difficult game for a striker,” the Liverpool manager insisted but the suspicion remained that his decision to replace Sturridge with Adam Lallana before an hour of the game had elapsed had already provided a more accurate reflection of his feelings than the words he used. That sense grew four days later when Klopp showered Sturridge in praise; a softening up process was clearly under way.
Describing him as “outstanding,” comparing his wait for a goal to a similar one that Robert Lewandowski had experienced and citing the “unbelievable” training ground brilliance that leave onlookers with “tears in their eyes,” Klopp's platitudes were not sufficient for Sturridge to be named in his starting line-up for West Bromwich Albion's visit to Anfield.
This may be a humane way of doing it, but it is rare that a player who is left out is made to feel better by the bitter pill being sugar coated, particularly when the player in question has strong and well-established feelings about where he should play, not if he should play. If there was a consolation for Sturridge it was that he had been forewarned.
Six months earlier, the exact same process had taken place with Klopp going to great lengths to single him out for praise following a 4-1 win over Stoke City before leaving him out against Borussia Dortmund. “I want to talk about Daniel,” Klopp volunteered on that occasion, but once the talking stopped and the planning began, Sturridge's name became less prominent. It is becoming an increasingly regular occurrence.
The problem for Sturridge, and this is no slight on his individual ability, is that when he is taken out of the equation Liverpool's attack functions more fluidly, particularly when Klopp is able to field his favoured trident of Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino. Put an out-and-out goalscorer in between two of that trio and the expectation would be that goals and fluency would result but it is yet to work out that way.
That being the case, Klopp's decision to leave Sturridge on the bench was not just to be expected, it was a no-brainer and it took just 21 minutes for his choice to be vindicated as both Coutinho and Firmino both played significant roles in the sumptuous defence-splitting move which culminated in Mane giving Liverpool the lead with a superb volley.
GOAL! Absolutely brilliant goal by Liverpool. The dummy by Coutinho, the pass by Can, the cross by Firmino and the superb volley by Mane.
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) October 22, 2016
It is Firmino, whose assist means he has been directly involved in more goals than any other Premier League player in 2016, more than anyone else who is making Sturridge dispensable. If the Brazilian's ability to score and create goals is glaringly obvious, less so is his intelligent movement which allows him to create space for others either by dropping deep and dragging defenders out of position or venturing out wide to open gaps up for his teammates to fill.
It is when that happens and Liverpool's counter pressing is at its most effective that their opponents' attempts to stop them become as futile as sweeping leaves on a windy day. Up until the point that they went behind, West Brom had coped as well as any of the visitors to Anfield so far this season but the moment that they conceded, the game changed and Liverpool became increasingly difficult to stop.
A second goal – finished with typical style by Coutinho – threatened to end the game as a contest before half-time, with Liverpool looking to maintain the two goal margin of victory they required to go top of the Premier League. The control they exerted ensured that objective never appeared under any serious threat as West Brom struggled to make any kind of inroads.
With only five goals conceded in their previous matches in all competitions, the idea that Liverpool are great going forward but weak at the back might need to be revised. Loris Karius has barely had a save of note to make since replacing Simon Mignolet in mid-September, with the protection he is receiving from those in front making it impossible to assess his right to be first choice goalkeeper.
The one nagging doubt, though, is their susceptibility at set pieces, a problem which West Brom took advantage of when Gareth McAuley scored from close range to put a previously one-sided game back in the balance. It was at that point that Klopp decided the time had come to reconfigure his attack but when Coutinho departed the pitch it was Lucas who was introduced rather than Sturridge.
By then, the Liverpool manager's priority had become preserving what he had rather than looking for the best permutation to score goals. It was the need to achieve that objective which ensured that when Klopp did introduce an attacker during stoppage time, it was Divock Origi who was given the nod. All of which made this another difficult evening for Sturridge but one that provided further evidence in support of Klopp's belief that he can find a way without him.
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