Monday, 3 September 2018

Duology: Suarez and Sturridge

All the world is a stage, but Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were more than merely players. In 2013/14, their only full season together, the two combined to produce sheer theatre of the sort rarely seen before on a football pitch: Suarez the anti-hero, Sturridge the flawed genius. Ultimately it was not an Achilles Heel but an Achilles tendon that brought the latter down, while the Uruguayan left for Barcelona without a Premier League medal and with yet another scandal hanging over him – it transpired that the campaign was destined, in the end, to be a Greek tragedy. However, though the partnership collapsed, the memories endure; Liverpool has seen some truly wonderful footballers in its long history, but Suarez and Sturridge can stake a claim as two of the greatest ever.

It is tempting, with hindsight, to diminish the impact of Sturridge in the whirlwind 13/14 campaign. This would be to do a gross disservice both to Sturridge as an individual and to the near-telepathic connection that the two built up. Suarez, of course, is one of the most gifted forwards ever to grace a football pitch, but without Sturridge there would be no title charge about which to reminisce. The English forward led the line himself in Suarez’s enforced absence at the start of the campaign; he scored all three goals in three consecutive 1-0 wins, clearly laying out his credentials as a world class striker in his own right. His subsequent terrible injury luck has clouded the memory of many, but make no mistake: the undisputed best English centre-forward at the time plied his trade at Anfield.

The results of throwing a volatile South American into the mix were predictably seismic. Each was equally capable of picking the other out or taking on their marker with consummate ease, and the movement was simply impossible to defend against – a visibly less-than-fit Suarez returned from his ban against Sunderland, and managed to score two goals simply by virtue of getting on the end of Sturridge passes. Many frustrating minutes wasted out on the wing at Chelsea came to fruition in these moments, as Sturridge effortlessly drifted to the byline before instinctively picking out Suarez in the middle. Despite having just half of the previous season to get acquainted, the pair seemed to intuitively occupy the same wavelength: this was an enviable gift indeed, and defenders were certainly rarely able to enjoy similar premonitions as to what was coming next from either of them. Countless established defenders and goalkeepers were made to look foolish over the course of the season – there was little to be done when the pair descended upon a back line. Sure enough, while Sunderland were occupied with Luis Suarez at the back post at a corner, Sturridge added a goal to his two assists in the 3-1 win at the Stadium of Light. This two-man show proved to be a sign of things to come.

Part of the beauty of the partnership that came to be known as ‘SAS’ was the way in which it harnessed a certain volatility to such deadly effect. The two strikers undeniably struck a chord, but it was at times a jarring one – scoring was the currency of both forwards, and a kind of rivalry developed. If one decided to go up a level, the other instantly responded with a refusal to be outdone. A game against West Bromwich Albion sticks particularly firmly in the mind. Suarez had wrapped the result up almost on his own. He opened the scoring with a trademark winding run through the entire defence, followed by a powerful finish into the corner. The second was just as admirable; a fairly average cross meant that Suarez had to meet the ball at a near stand-still, but he somehow managed to generate enough power on his header to beat the goalkeeper. The hattrick was completed with a second header, a delicate glance into the far post from a corner. A visible change came over Sturridge, as he started to play entirely off pure goal-scorer’s instinct; he was not going to fail to get a goal on a day when his partner had managed three. Sure enough, he found his way on to the scoresheet by upstaging all of Suarez’ strikes – he went on a powerful run of his own before lifting the ball delightfully over Ben Foster from twenty yards out. Cue the ‘wriggly arms’, an enduring image from Sturridge’s time at the pinnacle of the game. Very few players would have even spotted the keeper marginally off his line; the technique to execute the chip to perfection was simply outrageous, and ensured that Sturridge shared the headlines.

That is not to say that the pair were selfish, or at least not overly so. They were undeniably single-minded, and would never pass up a goal when presented with the opportunity, but this is what made them so good – the reason these chances came along with such regularity in the first place is that Suarez and Sturridge kept laying them on for one another. Many classic partnerships have had a playmaker and a finisher, or some variation on the ‘big man, little man’ approach that so dominated the thinking of English coaches in the 1990s: not these two. They were both complete forwards, equally adept at producing something out of nothing and converting the chances when they came.

Indeed, the partnership that developed was almost transactional – an assist created more than a goal, it created a debt. It merited a response in kind, often an immediate one: in away matches at Stoke and Cardiff, in which Liverpool scored a combined eleven goals, Sturridge laid on goals for the Uruguayan only to be presented with tap-ins of his own later in the same games. Invariably, this would prompt a celebration almost as iconic as the wriggly arms: Sturridge would turn and point at the provider, who would be pointing back at him with a look of unbridled joy etched on his face. The elation was about a goal for the team, of course, but beyond that it was about the restoration of equilibrium between the strikers.

There was no such parity by the end of the season in terms of goal and assist tallies – Suarez ultimately found a level with which even Sturridge was not quite on par, finishing with an astounding 31 goals and 13 assists despite missing the start of the campaign. He was second only to Steven Gerrard in assists, and led the second-highest scorer by ten clear goals. Who was this second-placed man? Daniel Sturridge. These statistics make it all the more remarkable that Liverpool did not win the league; it is a historical anomaly, and one that does a disservice to a front two who are almost unrivalled across the entire Premier League era in their brilliance. Suarez had thrown absolutely everything he had into the campaign, and his tears after Crystal Palace were those of a man who has done everything within his power but still fallen short. Even before the unpleasant side of his utter single-mindedness reared its head at the World Cup in the form of a bite on Giorgio Chiellini, a move away from Anfield seemed inevitable.

This same World Cup provided one fitting last act in the Suarez and Sturridge relationship. England were drawn in the same group as Uruguay, which meant that the two forwards who had thrived so much together would now have to do battle on the biggest stage. Again, this was almost irresistible theatre: the two men had just endured the pain of falling short in the Premier League together, and now it fell to one of them to inflict a final blow on the other.  It was Suarez who would emerge victorious, scoring twice to eliminate Sturridge and England from the competition. This final severance of the ever-unsteady bond between the two signified the end of a partnership that burned bright but ultimately burned out.

Sturridge remained at Liverpool in 2014/15, but a combination of awful misfortune with injuries and the club’s utter failure to adequately replace Suarez cruelly limited the influence he could exert – all that was left of the SAS was a memory. It is inevitable that this casts a shadow over the partnership, but it would be an immense shame if the pair were lost from the archives of the best footballing duos in history. Circumstance transpired to bring them together in a team that was otherwise simply not equipped to push for the league, and they were ultimately dragged down, but this cannot erase the mesmerising connection shared by the two strikers. Who can forget Suarez’s remarkable four-goal haul against Norwich, or Sturridge’s delicate chip over an onrushing Tim Howard in the derby? These are the things that fans pay to go and see: it cannot be denied that Suarez and Sturridge were the ultimate crowd-pleasers. This, and not the circumstances in which it all fell apart, should be their legacy.

First published on These Football Times as part of the Duology series:

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Duology: Henry and Bergkamp

Dennis Bergkamp... Dennis Bergkamp… Dennis Bergkamp! The Dutchman cannot be mentioned without this immortal piece of commentary from the 1998 World Cup coming to mind, but at club level his name was seldom heard without being closely followed by that of his strike partner, Thierry Henry. At the same tournament, the young Frenchman was bursting on to the international scene: at just twenty years of age he ended up as top scorer for his country, who of course went on to win the trophy. A defeat on penalties for the Netherlands at the hands of Brazil meant that the pair were not destined to meet in the final - it would be another year before they united at Arsenal, forming a partnership that would shape the club for the next seven seasons.

In fact, the year preceding his move to Arsenal was a tough one for Thierry Henry. He could not recreate his form for Monaco and France at new club Juventus, where he was forced to play wide against defences far more disciplined than those he had grown accustomed to facing. Bergkamp, meanwhile, was having no such problems at the English club – he achieved the impressive feat of reaching double figures in the league in both goals and assists, only missing out on the title on the final day of the season. This success was coming under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger, who had given Henry his senior debut for Monaco five years previously. He opted to gamble upon the striker once more following his tough spell in Italy, paying a club record fee for the forward: the decision proved to be one of his best.

The connection between Henry and Bergkamp, which grew to be almost telepathic, was not instantaneous. The strong form of Kanu, an out-and-out striker if ever there was one, thwarted any hopes of a regular pairing up front between the Dutchman and the new acquisition – Wenger started the season with all three of them, shifting Henry out wide to accommodate all of the talent, but settled upon rotation as the policy for much of the campaign. None of the trio surpassed twenty-six league starts. Nonetheless, there were glimpses of what was to come; on an individual level it was an excellent campaign for Henry, who managed seventeen league goals, while Bergkamp exerted much creative influence as well as chipping in with six league goals of his own. The team never looked capable of posing a threat to Manchester United, however, who won the league by a very comfortable margin of 18 points.

In many ways it was a similar story in the following season. As if starting places had not been hard enough to come by already, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord were added to the strike force. This surfeit of attacking talent was particularly damaging to Bergkamp – he was reduced to fewer than twenty league starts, and managed just three goals on the way to another runners-up finish for The Gunners. At thirty years of age, it seemed likely that his time at Arsenal was coming to an end: fans were left ruing the fact that Henry had not come to Highbury just a little sooner, as another seventeen-goal haul had established him as a firm favourite amongst the fans. The prospect of him in a partnership with Bergkamp in his prime was a tantalising one, but appeared to be little more than a pipe dream. However, this failed to account for the remarkable renaissance of the Dutchman.

2001/02 marked the start of the golden age for Arsenal under Wenger. Plenty of purists argue that this was truly the best Arsenal side of the last two decades, surpassing even The Invincibles that were to come two seasons later. Central to the success were Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, finally playing together up front as a bona fide duo. It was Wiltord who transitioned into a wider role to allow the partnership to flourish, and the result was arguably the most iconic strike partnership of the Premier League era.

Each knew his role: Bergkamp was the creator, calling upon his wealth of experience to lay on chance after chance for the finisher, Henry. This came naturally to the Frenchman – he tucked away twenty-four goals in the league to secure the Golden Boot. More impressive than individual accolades, however, was the league title. The pair combined to help finally wrest the trophy from the hands of Manchester United, to whom they had been runners-up for the previous two seasons. Some moments of sheer inspiration took place along the way, not least amongst which was one of the goals in a 2-0 away win over Newcastle. Bergkamp, so often the provider, found the net himself with a goal that epitomised his supreme talent. Having received the pass from Robert Pires, he deftly flicked the ball past defender Nikos Dabizas; he then went around his man on the other side, but instinctively knew where his own flick would end up and latched on to it before slotting it past the goalkeeper. Ironically, Henry was absent through injury for this moment of magic – however, it encapsulated the joy and creativity upon which the partnership thrived.

This, surely, was a final heroic send-off for Bergkamp. It had been a remarkable campaign, during which he and Henry had combined in ways that moved the parameters of what it meant to form an effective pairing up front, but the veteran was now 33. Unbelievably, however, he was not done yet. Henry, meanwhile, was truly hitting his prime. As Bergkamp amazed by refusing to burn out, the French forward’s star shone brighter than ever: the 2002/03 campaign saw him end on an astounding 32 goals and 23 assists in all competitions, finishing runner-up for the World Player of the Year award. As a team, Arsenal were unable to retain their title – they did take home another FA Cup, however. The mutual admiration that the pair had for each other could be seen both on and off the pitch – Henry has declared Bergkamp the best player that he has ever played with, while the Dutch maestro insisted that his strike partner was “the complete package”.

In truth, though, the package was only ever complete when the two played together. Each was blessed with their own immense individual talent, but the combination took them onto a new plain altogether. Indeed, in the 2003/04 season, the whole team were propelled to something never achieved before or since in the Premier League. Much ink has been spilled over The Invincibles season, but in truth the headline record speaks for itself: an entire league campaign unbeaten. It would be a disservice to the phenomenal squad that Wenger assembled to place all of the praise on the duo of Bergkamp and Henry, but they were undoubtedly the talismans. In a team of greatness, the master and his apprentice stood out. Henry, by now, had become the more important of the pair, but Bergkamp still featured in well over two-thirds of the games on the way to the unprecedented feat – he sealed the team’s immortal place in folklore by setting up the winner in the final game of the season against Leicester.

The next two seasons proved to be the swansong for the clinical partnership. Bergkamp, fittingly, was beginning the process of passing the torch to another Dutchman: Robin van Persie had arrived on the scene, and had started to turn heads very quickly. Nonetheless, Bergkamp still had a wealth of talent to offer – in the final game of 2004/05 he scored once and laid on three assists in a 7-0 routing of Everton, and was met with chants of “one more year”. This was quite the vote of confidence in the longevity of a now-36-year-old Bergkamp. It was in this campaign that Henry overtook Ian Wright as Arsenal’s all-time top scorer – it is no coincidence that he, and Wright before him, achieved this impressive record with Bergkamp providing the service. That is not to downplay Henry’s talent as an individual: he hit 25 and 27 league goals respectively in the last two seasons with his partner, reinforcing his status as one of the all-time great goal-scorers. It was little surprise when, a year after Berkgamp’s retirement, Henry moved to a Barcelona side emerging as one of the greatest club outfits ever assembled.  

There was some poetry in the fact that Bergkamp’s career, and with it his beautiful partnership with Henry, came to an end in the same year that the club finished its time at Highbury. Arsenal had been based there since 1913 – the exploits of Henry and Bergkamp were a final flourish in an illustrious list of achievements at the ground stretching back nearly a hundred years. The stadium is no more, the ground upon which it once stood now a block of flats; the memories live on, however, memorialised in the minds of the fans who experienced such joy there. In much the same way, although Bergkamp eventually had to call time on his remarkable career, his partnership with Henry is an immortal one: it will forever be remembered as one of football’s greatest duos.

First published on These Football Times as part of the Duology series:

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013