England news: Daniel Sturridge hits back at 'unfair' criticism, enjoys playing for Gareth Southgate

Liverpool striker is flourishing under Gareth Southgate but rejects suggestions that he does not do enough for the team aside from goals

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The Independent Football

Daniel Sturridge has scored six goals so far this season, two in World Cup qualifiers, four in the EFL Cup. That tells the story of his strange situation, one that is unfortunately not unusual for English players: vital for the national team, but not especially important to his club side.

The fact that Sturridge has only started four of Liverpool’s 11 Premier League games this season shows what Jurgen Klopp thinks about his skills and his effect on the team. Gareth Southgate clearly feels differently, though, starting Sturridge up front for all three of the Group F games of his tenure so far.

Sturridge started at Wembley against Scotland on Friday evening even though Southgate could have picked Harry Kane, his old centre-forward from the England Under-21 team, back fit again after seven weeks out with an ankle injury. He rewarded Southgate with an instinctive headed goal to put England ahead, a vital goal in disrupting Scotland’s plan to turn the home crowd.

It certainly must make a pleasant change for the situation Sturridge finds himself in at Liverpool. “He’s got a lot of faith in me,” Sturridge said of Southgate. “I’m trying to repay him as best as I can. If I can perform well in the games, that’s important. We have beaten Scotland, that’s a big game and big result for us. It is important for every player to have the manager’s confidence.”

With Sturridge there is always a but, a feeling that he is not quite making the most of brilliant talents, both technical and physical. There is the issue of injuries, the fact that almost 10 years on from his senior debut, he has only managed to start half of his team’s Premier League game in two seasons, 2011-12 at Chelsea, 2013-14 at Liverpool. That was the problem last year, but this year he is fit and the problem is slightly different: Klopp simply thinks that Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho is his best front three.

Klopp is measured in what he says about Sturridge in public, but there has been criticism of him recently from those who think he does not do enough for the team. Sturridge is not afraid of speaking out when he has an opinion and he made very clear what he thinks of that critique. “I’m not worried about what other people say about me,” he said. So is that particular point fair? “It’s unfair. It’s unfair. I feel that I contribute to the team. I assist, I score goals. It doesn’t matter what people say about me.”

In this England team, Sturridge has an important role to play leading the line and creating the space for the imaginative players. Southgate plays a narrow 4-2-3-1 with Wayne Rooney, Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana all behind him, and if Sturridge were to drop off too there would be no room for anyone else. So England need Sturridge, as far as possible, to run off the shoulder, worry the defenders, force them back, creating space for others.

“If I’m coming short to get involved in the game, then there is nobody up front in the centre forward position,” Sturridge explained. “It is important for the team to have a focal point. If I drop deep and get on the ball, then there is nobody up front. That is where I need to be. I need to be threatening the centre-halves, pushing them and creating space for other people. That’s why we have a No 10 and [on Friday] it was Rooney. I need to make space for him. If I drop deep it cramps his style a bit. It’s about positional awareness.” 

The problem for Sturridge is that this sounds like a very good description of what Harry Kane does for Tottenham. He is the lone striker in Mauricio Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1, and excels about the selfless work for the good of his team, as well as the penalty box poaching which has always been Sturridge’s strength. Kane will not be involved against Spain on Tuesday night, as he continues to return to full fitness. Sturridge, then, is likely to start up front again.

There is no international football again until March, when England play a friendly in Germany and a home qualifier against Lithuania. By then, though, it is difficult to see how Sturridge, not playing for Liverpool, would start ahead of Kane, presuming he is fit again. Not that Sturridge wanted to discuss the possibility in detail. “It is down to the manager to choose the team.”