Liverpool suffered with a number of injuries over the festive part of the season, but the return to action of striker Daniel Sturridge last weekend highlighted just how important he can be for the side and why he needs to be immediately restored to the starting XI.
Sturridge featured for just 25 minutes off the bench against Stoke, yet he made a match-winning impact with an assist and a goal to help claim a 5-3 victory, the Reds' first league win in the Premier League era at the Britannia Stadium.
His strike, the final goal of the game, was his 10th of the season—from just 13 appearances.
Just before he got injured, Brendan Rodgers was regularly pairing Sturridge up front with Luis Suarez in a fluid, attack-minded 4-4-2 which saw plenty of the midfield support cutting in from the flanks to add a second line of attack.
Following on from the No. 15's absence, Liverpool has mainly utilised a 4-3-3 system with Suarez as the lone forward and Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho as the wide forwards.
The tactical switch has allowed Liverpool to improve immeasurably with key aspects of their game, including pressing through midfield and dominating possession, while goals haven't exactly dried up, either. In fact, the Reds scored 22 goals in the eight games Sturridge missed—including five wins and three defeats.
What he Brings to the Party
Questionable goal celebration aside—bad as it is, no Red will complain about seeing it 20 times a season—Sturridge brings an entirely different dimension to Liverpool's attack. His pace and power drags defences out of shape simply because they have to keep up with him, leaving space for others, including Suarez, to fully exploit.
Why is this in particular a necessary trait against Aston Villa?
Villa will, in all probability, attempt to curb the influence of Suarez and other front players by sitting compact, narrow and deep, forcing Liverpool to play in front of the back line and looking to frustrate the home side—before using their ample speed on the counter to break forward.
Sturridge in the side not only gives them a huge problem to contain with his movement in areas in front of the defence—see his goal at Villa Park—but also his acceleration into gaps behind the back line, again leaving space behind for others to exploit.
On the ball, of course, Sturridge has shown he can beat defenders one-on-one, can shoot from anywhere from the six-yard box to 25 yards out, can work the channels well and has shown great capability to create scoring chances, as well as take them—as his 12 chances created in 13 games attests to.
Who Sits Out?
With the Reds flying in fourth and having won two on the bounce and six of the last eight, it's no easy decision to take out one of the attackers to make room for Sturridge.
However, such is the combative, relentless and unpredictable nature of Premier League football that merely coming out of the starting XI means nothing in the grand scheme of things for these players, much less that they are not in the "best 11" at the club or part of the preferred first-team picture.
On both current form and to keep the current shape of the team, Rodgers might well consider taking Coutinho out of the firing line. Dropping Sterling to the left flank—cutting in onto his right foot—and playing Sturridge from the right allows the basic framework of the team to stay in place, as it has been over the past few weeks, while there will be ample opportunity for the striker to rove centrally to have his best impact.
Who should make way for Sturridge vs Villa?
In turn, with Liverpool expected to dominate possession at home, Glen Johnson would have plenty of space to attack down the right flank—with the hope then being that his own form improves enough to take advantage.
Alternatively, Rodgers could remove one of the central midfielders, perhaps most likely Lucas Leiva, to allow a return to the 4-4-2 base which had worked well before Sturridge's injury, leaving Sterling and Coutinho both in the team with Jordan Henderson central.
Either way, it's a fantastic option for Rodgers to have at least one quality midfielder on the bench to call upon later in the game and yet have his starting XI packed with attacking talent which doesn't upset the balance on the pitch.
And either way, Sturridge has to come back into Liverpool's side as they look to pick up yet another home victory.