At the age of 22, Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge has achieved much and still has many successes ahead of him. Already a Premier League and FA Cup winner, Sturridge also commanded a tribunal fee now reportedly amounting to £6.5m when he moved to Stamford Bridge from Manchester City three years ago. At City he developed a reputation as an exciting young prospect, and few were surprised when Chelsea took on his contract in 2009. There were high expectations of Sturridge – there still are – but doubts also remain.
On Saturday evening I went to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium to watch a quarter-final of the men’s football at the London 2012 Olympic Games. To my annoyance it turned out that the match featured Great Britain, the illegitimate 18-man Frankenstein squad coached into an unswerving Englishness by Stuart Pearce. Leading the line for Britain was Sturridge, and he’d shown his best and his worst during the tournament’s group stage.
He’d scored the winning goal in the final group game against Uruguay, but Sturridge’s ability was summed up beautifully at Wembley three days previously. With Britain having thrown away a lead despite looking comfortable, they struck twice in three minutes to seal the game against the United Arab Emirates just as their opponents had begun to seize control of the game. Scott Sinclair scored to make it 2-1, but the crowning moment of the victory was the third, a composed and brilliantly executed chip over the goalkeeper by Sinclair’s former Chelsea team-mate.
The thing is, Sturridge isn’t quite there yet, wherever “there” is. He’s a player capable of frustrating supporters almost to the very end, a young man in possession of supreme quality but seemingly unable to deploy it to its full potential. Sturridge endured a less than stellar second half of the last Premier League season and his ability to step up to the highest level has come into question with increasing frequency.
He is now often criticised and the core of this critique is that he is a selfish player. It certainly comes across that way sometimes, and perhaps more so than the average selfish striker. But I don’t think that quite explains the shortcomings in his game.
Where Sturridge lets himself down too regularly is in his decision-making. It was evident in the Olympics Games group stage, manifested in blown chances that resulted from passing instead of shooting, or shooting instead of passing, or dwelling on the ball pondering his options for that split-second too long. When a player is capable of doing the things Sturridge can do, it’s disappointing to watch him do them at the wrong time, or opt not to do them at all. It’s not an easy skill to learn, but it’s something Sturridge sorely needs to add to his game in order to get the best from himself.
Of course, Saturday’s game in Cardiff is likely to prove a low point in the Chelsea youngster’s career thanks to his involvement in its conclusion. With Great Britain and South Korea unable to settle the game at 1-1 after 120 minutes, the penalty shoot-out was poised at 4-4 when Sturridge approached the penalty spot to take the fifth for his team. Noticeably on edge, Sturridge committed that most pointless of crimes: the stuttering run-up. His strike was at a good height for Jung Sung-Ryong, and the Korean goalkeeper easily palmed it away. Ki Sung-Yeung finished the job with the final kick.
As an observer both in the stadium and instantly on Twitter, I can report that the backlash was swift and merciless. It’s easy to see why: Sturridge is a frustrating player, capable of brilliance one minute and hesitation the next. A broken spot kick run-up is a stupid mistake (and should also be against the rules, in my opinion) but it doesn’t fully explain the flaws in Sturridge’s game, nor does it justify writing him off as a prospect for regular appearances in the England team.
Sturridge’s ability on the ball and its tendency to be undone by questionable decision-making was in evidence throughout in Cardiff. At times he looked incisive, able to pick a clever little pass or even a backheel in order to link up with Craig Bellamy or with Sinclair. But there were also plays that came to an abrupt end at Sturridge’s feet, cut hopelessly short through the selection of the wrong option.
And therein lies the real issue. Sturridge, labeled selfish and over-confident, actually seems to struggle more with picking the right move. Selfish and over-confident players tend to shoot in unpromising positions, while Sturridge doesn’t always shoot in positions that for him certainly represent good opportunities to score. The wrong pass, holding the ball too long and making the wrong call when deciding whether or not to shoot are all errors of which Sturridge is too often guilty.
It’s not terminal by any means, but in my opinion this is an area that requires some improvement if Sturridge is to reach the heights for England that he sometimes seems so comfortably able to reach. Maybe it’s a wayward football brain, maybe it’s lack of composure. But there’s better to come from Sturridge and I’m largely optimistic that we’ll see it before long.