Why Daniel Sturridge's time has come
Andre Villas-Boas only made one substitution in Sunday's 3-3 draw with Manchester United, but it seemed a key moment. Oriol Romeu replaced Daniel Sturridge, with Juan Mata moving out to the right and Romeu sitting deep. Mata was no longer helping control the tempo of the game, and Chelsea's midfield sat so deep that it practically conceded the midfield ground to United.
Lost in the postgame analysis was the reaction of Sturridge as he was substituted. He was clearly annoyed; there was no handshake, no look between him and Villas-Boas. Sturridge has become accustomed to being withdrawn from the action -- he has started 19 league games this season, and has been substituted in over half.
The problem Sunday was Sturridge's lack of defensive contribution. Villas-Boas had gotten up from his crouching position to order Sturridge back to help out. He followed instructions, and promptly conceded a penalty by bringing down Patrice Evra. In fairness to Sturridge, he was playing a different role than usual. Villas-Boas started the season with a 4-3-3 based around heavy pressing, so the defensive responsibilities of the wide player were all about closing down the opposition full back.
Pressing has gradually been less and less of a feature of Chelsea's strategy, and the switch to a 4-2-3-1 system meant Sturridge moving even deeper. That formation, combined with sitting deep, requires the wide players to form a second bank of four and protect their own full backs.
It's a very different role, especially if you consider yourself a striker. A little like Theo Walcott, Sturridge has repeatedly suggested that his best position is as a central forward, rather than out on the right. Despite a successful spell at Bolton playing up front, there are some doubts about whether Sturridge currently has the required intelligence and movement to play that role. He often looks too static.
But you can imagine his frustration. Didier Drogba is at the Africa Cup of Nations, Nicolas Anelka has been sold, Romelu Lukaku isn't yet ready and Fernando Torres hasn't scored a league goal since September. Torres' performance against United included an assist in a reasonable all-round display. But he keeps getting playing time up front; whereas Sturridge is sacrificed half the time, Torres has only been removed by his manager once in his past eight league starts. Clearly, the coach wants his striker to regain his confidence, but Torres is effectively being rewarded for poor form.
Even if Villas-Boas had wanted to move Mata to the right, why not take off Torres and give Sturridge a go up front? Sturridge has scored nine league goals this season, averaging one every 150 minutes. Not bad for a wide player. And Sturridge is entitled to think he could improve that record if allowed to play in the penalty box more.
"I want to continue playing for Chelsea and from there I want to start playing as a striker, and from there try to play for England as a striker," Sturridge says. "That's my aim, to be a number nine for England."
It's interesting that Sturridge is so focused upon playing for his national team. Usually players are more reserved, claiming they'd rather concentrate on their club and that any international recognition would be a nice bonus. That unusual attitude makes sense for Sturridge because he has had a strange footballing upbringing that has seen little loyalty to one club. He spent time in Aston Villa's youth system before transferring to Coventry City and then Manchester City: two transfers, all before the age of 13. From there, despite first-team chances and winning City's Young Player of the Year award, he surprisingly moved to Chelsea in 2009.
It set his development back a couple of years; Anelka had just finished as the Premier League's top goal scorer, then Drogba would repeat the trick in 2009-10. Carlo Ancelotti was reluctant to drop either and give Sturridge chances. From starting three games in his final season at City, he started two in his first 18 months at Chelsea. "I asked him last year why he left Manchester City," Roberto Mancini mused earlier this season. "He said he didn't know."
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Sturridge enjoyed a successful loan spell at Bolton, his fifth club. And there are further divided loyalties: He supported Derby as a youngster because his uncle Dean played up front for them, then switched his loyalties to Arsenal. Even back in the summer transfer window he was linked with a move away, rumors quashed by Villas-Boas, and possibly stemming from the player's agent. His contract expires at the end of next season, and Sturridge is known to want a pay raise.
In all, he seems a difficult character, but he is possibly the key player Villas-Boas needs to get onside. The Chelsea squad is full of big characters, veterans of the Jose Mourinho days, who have enjoyed a particularly large influence in the dressing room in recent years. Villas-Boas has his group of players, a new breed -- David Luiz, Ramires, Mata, Romeu, Torres, Raul Meireles. Some were signed after Villas-Boas' arrival, but all came to the club after the Mourinho "glory days." They are, notably, all foreign, all Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking players. The old guard at English clubs can be resistant to an influx of foreign players, as David James recently wrote about happening in his Portsmouth days under Harry Redknapp.
Sturridge is the bridge between the old days (his arrival predates any of the aforementioned six, and he was around when Chelsea won the league in 2009-10) and the new side: Only under Villas-Boas has he been given a run in the starting XI. But he's still not happy. He wants to play more, and he wants to play up front. For both tactical and political reasons, it might be worth it for Villas-Boas to grant his wish.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.