Daniel Sturridge scored within 24 seconds of coming on in Liverpool’s 4-0 win over West Ham on Sunday, providing the perfect example of his new role.
The Reds were already cruising to a comfortable opening-day victory when Sturridge replaced Mohamed Salah to make his return to competitive action at Anfield.
Having spent the second half of last season struggling for fitness on loan at West Brom, the striker reported for pre-season with a renewed focus, and in excellent shape.
And with Liverpool lining up for a corner at the Anfield Road end, he continued his fine run of form by netting his side’s fourth goal with an instinctive effort at the back post.
Sturridge had received a roaring reception on taking to the field, and the sight of him peeling away with a knowing grin after scoring with his first touch provided a feel-good ending to proceedings.
Though the Reds had already sealed victory by the time he was introduced, this was a hugely important strike for both Sturridge and Jurgen Klopp as they eye success in 2018/19.
Sturridge’s half-season loan to West Brom came as a relief for the player, and he largely departed with the blessing of the Kop due to his diminishing role on Merseyside.
Despite remaining fit for the majority of the first half of last season, he started in just five of his 14 appearances in all competitions, totalling 514 minutes on the field at an average of 36.7 per game.
He still managed to score three and assist three in those outings, but with Roberto Firmino established as first-choice striker and Dominic Solanke preferred as backup, his opportunities were limited.
“It’s going to be a great feeling for me to be here, to have my family not so far away that they can come to games and see me play regularly,” he told WBA.co.uk on his move.
Though joining a side firmly in the throes of a relegation battle was a curious decision, it was clear that Sturridge’s motives were as much personal as they were professional.
He desperately required a change of scenery, and as he told LFCTV during pre-season, “it was important for me to get my head in the right place and evolve as a person.”
Crucially, he added that he now feels “at home again,” and with six goals and two assists in nine warmup friendlies and his late contribution against West Ham the benefits of his time away are evident.
“I’m just happy to be back and to push myself and be part of the group again,” was the prevailing message as Sturridge addressed his prospects for the new campaign.
Arriving back at Melwood he immediately struck a bond with Naby Keita, with his off-field influence crucial to the Guinean’s swift transition to life at Liverpool.
Keita produced a stellar display against the Hammers, and Klopp remarked after the game how “he obviously settled really quickly,” and despite a difficult language barrier this can be largely attributed to Sturridge.
“Everybody has been very nice to me and very friendly, of course, but Daniel’s obviously a player with great experience and he’s a very good player as well,” the 23-year-old told LiverpoolFC.com earlier in August.
But the No. 15 will have required another bedding-in period, too, and aided by his chemistry with Keita on the pitch his performances during pre-season ensured this was a simple process.
On top of this, scoring 24 seconds after coming on for his first Premier League game since leaving for the Hawthorns should be a major confidence-booster.
It served to vindicate his decision to return and fight for a place under Klopp—initially slated for a permanent exit along with Danny Ings and Divock Origi, he is now a fully fledged member of the squad.
Importantly, and realistically given the magnitude of his injury problems in recent seasons, he is now seemingly at ease with a reduced role under Klopp.
“It doesn’t matter whether you play the first game or the 50th game,” he proffered, “as long as you’re involved in the journey that’s all that matters.”
Sturridge’s place on the substitutes’ bench on Sunday helped highlight a vast improvement in the depth of Klopp’s squad heading into the new campaign.
His outfield reserves for the final-day victory over Brighton in May consisted of Ings, Ragnar Klavan, Nathaniel Clyne, Alberto Moreno, Adam Lallana and Ben Woodburn.
At the weekend, the manager could call upon Sturridge, Lallana, Clyne, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Xherdan Shaqiri.
The signings of Keita, Fabinho and Shaqiri have improved this significantly, but so has the return of Sturridge, whose credentials outweigh those of Ings, Solanke and Origi combined.
Perhaps for the first time, Klopp was able to withdraw all three of Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mane and not be left with a forward line more at home in the Championship.
The manager even claimed after the game how he had “no explanation” for omitting Moreno, Solanke and Origi from Sunday’s squad, and for not sending on Clyne or Lallana, but the reality is this is due to Liverpool’s added depth.
Sturridge can be the figurehead for this new-look group, and if he is able to make game-changing cameos—and maintain his fitness—he could make a big difference for the Reds in 2018/19.