After failing to score for the fifth game running, pundits, journalists and fans alike are trying to pinpoint why Daniel Sturridge is struggling to recapture the form he displayed in 2013/2014 season, which saw him form a devastating attacking trident with Raheem Stirling and Luis Suarez. During that season, Sturridge scored 21 Premier league goals as Liverpool narrowly missed out on the title to Manchester City. On the back of this stunning season, he was widely regarded as one of the most dangerous strikers in Europe. Fast forward three years and a completely different picture is painted. Having had to contend with two injury hit seasons, Sturridge for the most part, has managed to stay fit this campaign. However, his performances have been somewhat underwhelming, with several quarters questioning his work ethic and adaptability, Sturridge has found himself in and out of Jürgen Klopp’s high pressing free flowing Liverpool side. Still only 27, why has a player who seemed to have the world at his feet stagnated so badly?
One possible explanation is that Daniel Sturridge has lost the electric pace which made him such a dangerous player. This has been supported by a recent article published by Sky Sports, which showed a sharp decline in Daniels Sturridge top sprint speed since the 2013/2014 season. Interestingly, Jamie Carragher picked up on the idea that Sturridge may be worried about getting injured again: “I don’t know if his pace has completely gone or whether he’s that worried with injuries that he pulls out of something”. Despite this comment from Jamie Carragher seemingly addressing a psychological explanation of injury, little is understood about the psychological consequences of injury, despite research identifying athletes returning to sport to experience; feelings of isolation, lack of athletic identity, lack of confidence and trust and increased anxiety (Podlog, Dimmock & Miller, 2011; Podlog & Eklund, 2007; Walker, Thatcher, Lavallee & Golby, 2004).
A common theme with Sturridge’s injury history is that he has often picked up a different injury after just returning to full fitness. Since the 2013/2014 season, Sturridge has suffered eight separate injuries (hip, leg, calf, foot, thigh, hamstring, knee, ankle ligaments). Whilst there are several physiological explanations for his re-injury, an alternative explanation can come from the psychology of injury, notably in the form of re-injury anxiety (Heil, 1993). According to research, re- injury anxiety concerns begin to exist once an athlete gets closer to returning to sport (Udry,Gould, Bridges & Beck, 1997). This anxiety leads to an athlete experiencing a sense of apprehension about putting themselves in a similar situation to the one that caused the original injury (Podlog & Eklund, 2006), with athletes who have high levels of anxiety likely suffer another injury (Bianco, 2001). The idea of an athlete being apprehensive could explain Sturridge’s decline in maximum sprint speed over the last few years because of previous experience. This therefore could lead to him being reluctant forcibly exert himself during a game and put himself in a situation which led to the original injury (Heil, 1993).
One criticism aimed at Sturridge is that he is not a ‘team player’ and does not offer the work rate required to fit into a Klopp team. Whilst this may be partly true, Sturridge has previously formed an interchangeable front three during the 2013/2014 season where he was more willing to be a team player. Injuries have inevitably not helped his willingness to be a team player, with his appearances being restricted to starting only 28 % of all games in the last three seasons. One problem Sturridge may be facing is the impact injuries have had on his inability to reach pre-injury standards, as he has been unable to perform his skills for a prolonged period (Podlog & Eklund, 2007). The lack of a consistent run of games over the last two seasons, may have led Sturridge to unconsciously adapt his game to stop the occurrence of injuries. This is supported by a longitudinal investigation examining NFL players, who experienced a decrease in performance after returning from injury. Notably, running backs and wide receivers exhibited a 33% drop in rushing and receiving yards as well as touch downs (Carey, Huffman, Parekh & Sennett, 2006). The researchers noted that upon the return the athletes had decreased confidence and trust in their bodies, which explained their reduced performance levels. In relation to Sturridge, his reluctance to be a team player may simply come down to his unwillingness to put his body through too much strain which has inevitably reduced his performance levels and team performance.
A final explanation stems from pressure on Sturridge to return to football early (Bauman, 2005). During the first few weeks of his reign, Klopp openly questioned Sturridge’s ability to distinguish between pain and real pain, urging the striker to distinguish between the two. This, accompanied by a media fanfare surrounding his chequered injury history has created a pressurised environment for Daniel Sturridge to return from injury early. Whilst coaches will usually assess if a player is physically ready, little is understood as to whether a player is mentally ready to return to action (Murphy & Waddington, 2007). According to Bauman (2005), elite athletes are under increasing pressure to make a quick return from injury. In Sturridge’s case, he was often portrayed as the man who could save Liverpool and England. This pressure could have led to Sturridge feeling guilty and returning from injury when he was not physically and psychologically ready to do so, which ultimately led to him picking up another injury shortly after returning to the team (Podlog & Eklund, 2005). This can further validate why his sprint performance has decreased over the last four years.
Whilst psychological factors play an undoubted role, this article is not denouncing physiological and biomechanical explanations for his injury history and reduced sprint speed, with researchers identifying the importance to account for the many factors which influence a player’s poor injury history (Podlog & Eklund, 2004). At the time of writing, Daniel Sturridge has not scored in his last five games with many media outlets touting him for a move away from Liverpool. Whilst he has received widespread criticism, he has played more games at this stage than in the previous two seasons, having seemingly overcome his injury problems, for now at least. The next year represents a critical point in his career, as he aims to shake off his injury problems for good and recapture the form which made him one of Europe’s deadliest strikers.