Daniel Sturridge is back, scoring, and Liverpool’s not that far back of fourth

It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen this man, so allow me to re-introduce him. Once upon a time, Daniel Sturridge was one of the best goalscorers in the Premier League, but thanks to the England national team breaking him (it’s alleged), last season’s second-leading goal scorer has been out for five months. In the interim, Liverpool’s struggled, has been unable to get its new striker to resemble something useful and is resorting to playing a 5-foot-7 Raheem Sterling as its most advanced attacker. Not that short people can’t accomplish a myriad of things, but it’s not ideal.

But back to Sturridge. One year after scoring a career-high 21 league goals, the 25-year-old’s been limited to one, having played only 270 minutes coming into today’s game. With West Ham visiting Anfield, however, it only look Sturridge 12 minutes after coming on for Lazar Marković to double that mark, converting on the fine work of Phillipe Coutinho to double Liverpool’s lead:

At this point last season, Sturridge had 12 goals in 15 games, a total that was going to be difficult to replicate without Luis Suárez in the team. But even if we reduce that total by half, that’s five additional goals Liverpool’s missed without its best attacker in the team. Given the relative defensive values of Sturridge and his replacements, it’s no stretch to look at the standings, see +4 goal difference the Reds carried into today’s game, and wonder what the team would be with five extra goals. Coming into the day, they were only five points back of fourth.

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For the rest of the league, that’s the scary part. Along a number of vectors, Liverpool’s performed not only below expectations but below pessimism. Simon Mignolet took and unexpected downturn, the defense didn’t gel after Dejan Lovren was brought in, Steve Gerrard’s play continued to fall off while Mario Balotelli failed to replace part of Suárez’s production. Add in Sturridge’s absence, and there’s been a small, nearly perfect storm about the 2014-15 season, one that will probably clear up. Mignolet will likely be better, the defense will improve, Gerrard’s going to be phased out, and Balotelli will either get better or stop taking up minutes.

Perhaps more important — even more important than the 2-0 win that allowed Liverpool to pass West Ham in the standings — was Sturridge’s return. Whereas so many have speculated the loss of pace at the top of the formation has been one of Liverpool’s major undoings, the prospect of a healthy Sturridge capitalizing on Coutinho and Sterling’s play is reason for hope. If the team’s biggest threat can stay healthy, Liverpool can start thinking about returning to Champions League.