By Kevin Koczwara
Mario Balotelli and Kun Aguero set the pace for Manchester City against Chelsea on Monday, Dec. 13. Chelsea looked vulnerable and in trouble again, something not all too unfamiliar this season for the Blues. Then the ball skipped to Daniel Sturridge, playing to the right of Didier Drogba, and he carved past a fumbling Gael Clichy, crossed a beautiful ball across the edge of the six-yard-box to a surging Raul Meireles, who scored his first goal for Chelsea since transferring in the summer from Liverpool — and since getting that terrible haircut. The game was level again. Chelsea no longer found itself in a hole, thanks to Sturridge’s play.
Sturridge is proving to be the type of player Chelsea needs right now, and the kind of player Manchester City could use. He is scoring goals. He breathes confidence. And he is willing to play out of position or come off the bench. He is a player with great potential, and he doesn’t seem to be wasting it by lighting his bathroom on fire, or pouting on the bench or leaving his team when it could use him.
City manager Roberto Mancini lamented before the match that City let the player got for free a few seasons ago. He knows he could have used him, and he knew how important Sturridge was for Chelsea against Manchester City. He was well aware of the threat the young man posed, and how important a player he could be for City right now.
“I know Sturridge well, I have watched him many times,” Mancini told The Guardian. “It was strange because he started out in Manchester and someone let him out of the club for nothing. Given the chance I think I would have liked to have kept him, but now he is at Chelsea we can do nothing. I know for sure he was one of the best young players that was here.”
Mancini would lament afterward the game as well. Sturridge not only set up the first goal, he also drew the penalty for the second goal — sealing Chelsea’s victory despite the rest of Chelsea’s fumbling and bumbling — and giving Frank Lampard all the headlines after he smashed the penalty past Joe Hart. But it was Sturrdige who deserved all the plaudits and praise. He was the difference maker, and has been for much of the season.
The Blues built their attack slow, and struggled to get out of their own half. Playing deep and playing and scared to run at City, Chelsea looked hesitant and uncomfortable save Sturridge. Sturridge never wavered or hesitated like his teammates. He received the ball on the flank and ran at Clichy, attacking a Man City defense that hadn’t held a clean sheet in eight matches. He was the creative spark Chelsea needed on the break, and one of the few players who shined for the full 90 minutes.
Juan Mata, Chelsea’s creative fulcrum for much of the season, was on the fringes of the match. Locked down by Gareth Barry, Vincent Kompany, and Yaya Toure scraping at his heels, the Spanish play-maker was ineffective for large spells in the game. He was stymied by the slow build-up play and Chelsea’s willingness to sit back and not let David Silva and Aguero pick them apart. It was up to Sturridge and Drogba to set the tempo for the Blues. Sturridge delivered. It was the kind of game Chelsea needed from one of its wingers. And Sturrdige’s attitude and dynamic play was something Roberto Mancini, City’s manager, would have loved to have had as the game progressed and his high-priced forwards failed to deliver.
Sturridge has been a revelation this season for Chelsea. His display against Newcastle earlier in the season was eye-opening.He tormented the Newcastle backline, and showed a willingness to run at defenders, create space for his teammates, and create his own chances. Sturridge has become what people thought Theo Walcott would be when he broke out for Arsenal a few years ago, except Sturridge is playing out of position and shining brighter than Walcott ever has.
Sturrdige is Chelsea’s leading goalscorer this season with eight goals. He has scored more than Fernando Torres, Drogba, Lampard and Mata, amazing for a player who hasn’t received the headlines like his teammates or the luxury of having the team play to his strengths.
Sturridge’s talents weren’t unbeknown coming into this season, though. Chelsea signed the player in 2009 from City when he was 19-years-old after the player rejected an offer from City — compensation was agreed on by the clubs because he was under-24. At the time, Sturridge was City’s most promising player, and the only player to ever score in the Youth FA Cup, the FA Cup, and the Premier League in the same season. He was named City’s Young Player of the Season in 2008-09 and looked like one of the team’s building blocks for a rich future. It didn’t happen.
In his first season with the Blues, 2009-10, Sturridge made 20 appearances, scoring five goals and supplying five assists — four of those goals came in four FA Cup appearances. Sturridge was tipped to be the future of the Chelsea attack and on the verge of making an England call-up. 2010-11 was a disappointment in the Chelsea Blue, though. Sturrdige made 13 Premier League appearances without scoring. The team signed Fernando Torres on deadline day of the January Transfer Window, and allowed Sturridge to go on loan to Bolton, where he would see regular playing time for a team playing fluid attacking soccer, for the rest of the season. Perfect timing.
The fit at Bolton was perfect from day Sturridge suited up for the Wanderers. He got to play under Owen Coyle — one of the league’s most promising managers — and on a team in need of a creative spark, the kind of spark he provided. With ball winners behind him and a freedom to express himself, Sturridge scored 8 goals in 12 appearances for Bolton before the season finished. He was one of the reasons why Bolton was able to avoid a complete disaster in the second half of the season — due mostly to injuries to key players. He also got a taste of playing fluid, high paced soccer, something Chelsea wasn’t doing under Carlo Ancellotti. That taste hasn’t wavered.
In 12 games this season, Sturrdige has scored eight times and credited with three assists. Under new Chelsea manager, Andres Villas-Boas, the England international has become the player City fans knew he could be, and he’s pushed his way into the England team. Sturridge is one of the few Chelsea players who can press and play Villa-Boas’ style. In fact, he’s thriving in it, just like he did at Bolton last season.
Jamie Redknapp compares Sturrdige’s current play to that of Arjen Robben when he was at his heights at Chelsea — and healthy — playing under Jose Mourinho.
“Sturridge reminds me of Arjen Robben in Jose Mourinho’s conquering Chelsea team. He can go outside or inside, will charge at pace, panic defenders and, as we saw against Manchester City, he can change a game,” wrote Radknapp in The Daily Mail of the talents of Sturridge after the City match. He does, however, forget to mention that the 22-year-old isn’t a winger like Robben. Instead Sturridge is playing out wide because Chelsea needs him there right now. Villas-Boas doesn’t trust anyone else on the right side of the attacking three. And he doesn’t have any other player willing to do what it takes out wide in the high pressing game he wants to play. Sturridge is the only option, and the move is paying off.
Chelsea and Villas-Boas now need to find a way to help Sturridge continue to progress. They also need to find more ways to get him the ball in and around the goal because he’s the best option they have to the season around. If Sturridge keeps playing like this he can help Blues fans forget Fernando Torres’ price tag while adding a beacon of light for the future of Chelsea.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org