The 27-year-old made his first start in the Premier League since January 2 as the Reds took to the London Stadium for their penultimate game of the season.
He scored the first goal in a 4-0 rout, with a Philippe Coutinho brace and an opportunistic strike from Origi capping Liverpool’s fourth consecutive away victory, and their fifth unbeaten on their travels.
Sturridge’s role under Klopp has been under scrutiny throughout 2016/17, and with the summer transfer window looming, there remain doubts over the striker’s long-term future at Anfield.
But on Sunday, Sturridge highlighted just what Klopp would be missing if he did leave Liverpool at the end of the season.
The Liverpool Diamond
With Firmino injured, Sturridge returning to fitness and Klopp extolling the virtues of Coutinho’s deep-lying creative talents ahead of Sunday, all signs pointed to a change of system.
It remained something of a surprise to see Liverpool line up in a rare 4-4-2 diamond, however, despite how straightforward it seemed.
This allowed the England international to support Sturridge and Origi in attack, with the duo reforming the partnership that shone in last season’s 6-1 win at Southampton in the League Cup quarter-finals.
Prior to the Reds’ trip to east London, Sturridge and Origi had been on the field together in the Premier League for a mere 42 minutes in 2016/17, highlighting Klopp’s attacking hierarchy and Sturridge’s lack of availability.
But with Firmino and Sadio Mane both out, Klopp needed a solution, and on Sunday the German was finally able to shoehorn all of his best available players into one formation.
And it proved devastating, as after a shaky first half-hour, Liverpool grew in confidence and, importantly, found fluency in their new system.
The Reds created 19 chances against the Hammers, their most in the league since the 2-2 draw with Sunderland on January 2, and their fourth-highest tally in the top flight this season—significantly higher than their season’s average (13).
Most of the plaudits have gone Coutinho’s way for his sensational performance as a No. 8—and the Brazilian did craft more openings (six) than any other player—but Sturridge’s presence was key.
It is no coincidence that the last time Liverpool created 19 chances in a league game was also Sturridge’s last start, with his influence in the final third a vast improvement.
Building on a bright cameo in the 0-0 draw with Southampton at Anfield, Sturridge took up his place alongside Origi and performed with a vigour and verve that have been so lacking of late.
Neither Origi or Firmino have hit the heights since Mane was sidelined with a knee injury at the beginning of April, either struggling with the burden of responsibility or hampered out of position.
On Sunday, Sturridge produced a performance of all-round quality, belying his role as third-choice striker for the majority of the campaign.
He took up a fluid approach, often dropping deep or drifting out to the right flank to pick up the ball, before interchanging with the likes of Lallana, Coutinho and Origi or driving at the Hammers’ defence.
Impressively, too, he worked hard throughout, closing down defenders, chasing otherwise lost causes and nicking the ball off the West Ham back line in dangerous areas.
As seen with his contribution to Origi’s strike, Liverpool’s fourth, it was his burst of energy in the final third that gave the away side an edge, showcasing a much-needed unpredictability.
Most importantly, Sturridge’s innate ability to ghost off the shoulder of opposing centre-backs allowed Coutinho to thrive in his deeper role, with his assist for the opener a prime example of that.
With space opening up as Jose Fonte struggled to hold the line at the back, Coutinho threaded an inch-perfect pass through the midfield and into Sturridge’s path.
He was already away, and the rest was little more than a formality for a striker who has scored 60 goals in 118 games for the Reds.
It was a goal reminiscent of Sturridge’s finest from the 2013/14, but more crucially, also of Mane’s opening strike in February’s 2-0 win over Tottenham.
Without Mane, a fully fit Sturridge would be Liverpool’s best option in attack—but the subject of his fitness does remain a major caveat.
Another Opportunity, or a False Dawn?
Sturridge has endured a miserable cycle ever since the end of Liverpool’s title-challenging campaign three years ago, with injuries blighting his progress.
Unfortunately, while the likes of Fabio Borini, Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli toiled to fill the void left by the hamstrung No. 15, Sturridge’s importance was magnified by his absence.
But now, with Klopp arriving an installing Firmino as his first-choice centre-forward, and Origi continuing his development by hitting double digits in the last two seasons, Sturridge’s presence has grown increasingly marginal.
Both West Ham and Paris Saint-Germain have been credited with an interest in Sturridge in the summer transfer window, and he is widely expected to leave the club at the end of the season.
But on the back of Sunday’s performance, it could certainly be argued that he still deserves star status at Anfield.
This is a familiar situation for Liverpool supporters, with Sturridge’s talent never in doubt, but his fitness constantly wavering, and these displays are more tantalising as the months go by.
If Sturridge were able to avoid injury, he would without doubt be one of the best strikers in Europe, but it remains a big ‘if’ for the boy from Birmingham.
This presents Klopp with a conundrum heading into the summer window: keep Sturridge and manage his fitness; or part ways and hope he doesn’t make an impact elsewhere.