Another game, another goal for Daniel Sturridge. The Chelsea slash England slash United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland sans Northern Ireland and Scotland ('team GB') strike has now played about two full games at the 2012 Olympics, and has notched twice. His first strike, against the United Arab Emirates, was a beautiful lob that came after Scott Sinclair had already won the match. His second was far less technically impressive, but ended up ensuring that GB topped Group A with a 1-0 win against Uruguay. Not too bad, right?
Of course, it'd be silly to based our opinion of Sturridge's performance based on a close-range tap-in. If he's in the discussion for a centre forward role at Chelsea, we're going to have to be pretty confident that he can actually play the position. Since he's only ever really played as a wide forward with us (and a support striker with Bolton Wanderers), it's difficult to know how he'd play in the middle. The Olympics give us a great chance to see just what Sturridge has to offer if moved from the right wing.
Unfortunately, a bout of viral meningitis before the tournament has meant that his fitness and sharpness are somewhat lacking. If you've watched him play, you'd have seen a first touch that's just a little bit off and acceleration that isn't quite up to his usual standards. But that's to be expected from a player recovering from a fairly serious disease, and some rust shouldn't prejudice us against his performances.
His technical skills, however, are slightly beside the point. We know Sturridge is good on the ball and has an eye for goal. What we're really looking for is an indication that his link-up play works and that he makes the decisions we expect from a pure centre forward. What's the verdict? Well, it was mixed.
Sturridge is clearly not a 'target' type centre forward. He's not good in the air and doesn't really make the necessary runs for high crosses (although his near post runs did allow Craig Bellamy to play the ball to Scott Sinclair at the back post). He also refuses to stay central, drifting to the wings and sometimes even deep in order to pick up the ball. His movement actually reminded me a lot of the Chelsea incarnation of Fernando Torres.
There were some good runs and some poor, but it's worth pointing out that he scored a classic poacher's finish and probably should have grabbed a second, hitting the post when presented with an empty net and the ball maybe six inches off the goalline. Fortunately for Danny, the whole sequence was ruled out for Bellamy's cross going out of play, but even though the finishing was awful, the movement was decent.
This is all dodging the elephant in the room, however. The main criticism of Sturridge lies in his supposed 'selfish' play. Leaving aside the absurdity of attaching a perjorative to a certain playing style (if you think you can ascertain someone's personality from the way they play football, you're almost certainly an idiot), it's pretty clear that the 22-year-old doesn't play in an entirely optimal way. Sometimes he shoots when a pass is a better option -- he did so on at least two occasions against Uruguay -- and sometimes he goes for a flair pass when a simpler option would be better.
That's a valid criticism, but we're getting to the point where we're critiquing a caricature of Sturridge rather than the player himself. No player, not even Xavi, is a perfect decision maker, and centre forwards in particular are notorious for favouring direct play over passing. We ignore the long spells where he plays... well, normally, interchanging possession with Tom Cleverley at the top of the box, or trying to release Neil Taylor on the overlap, because they're not really part of the 'selfish selfish selfish' narrative we're used to weaving around him,
Sturridge is young, and should probably learn to pass more often in situations where shots aren't particularly likely to go in. He's also going to score a lot of goals thanks to the fact that he's willing to convert opportunities into shots. I'd actually rather have a player who shoots too much at forward in this Chelsea team than one who shoots too little*, although obviously having Sturridge be a little less extreme with the shooty-shootiness would be a positive.
*Not to turn this into a Torres debate, but Nando could almost certainly stand to be a little less cautious in taking shots.
Do I think that Sturridge is a flawed player at this point? Yes. Do I think he had a good game against Uruguay? Not really. Was it a bad one? Not at all. There were a couple of terrible decisions, the kind you get out of a 22-year-old goalscorer, and a few pieces of very good work, sandwiching the meat of general competence. He took four shots, three of which were on target, and forced Martin Campana into a very difficult save. He didn't lose the ball too often. Oh, and he scored a goal too.
I don't know what Chelsea fans are expecting out of Sturridge, but for me this was a decent performance, even allowing for a relatively weak Uruguay defence, and I don't expect that opinion to change much when I go back through the game for a second time. This is a player in an unfamiliar position and recovering from a pretty nasty disease, and he's doing just fine.