What a difference a striker makes.
Liverpool played fairly well before Sturridge came on: controlling the tempo, dominating possession, limiting West Ham's chances. As they've done in most of their matches since switching to 3-4-2-1. But, as has happened in most of the matches this season, Liverpool truly struggled to put the ball in the net. Just three shots on-target from 11 in total, and two of those three were simple saves from distance; only Coutinho's narrow-angle shot required a marginally difficult save from Adrian. Markovic missed a clear-cut chance just before the interval, while Marriner ignored a fairly clear penalty in the build-up (and two elbows from Andy Carroll earlier in the half). Promising but frustrating, par for the course.
Liverpool did finally score before Sturridge came on. And it was a wonderful goal: Sakho to Moreno, bursting down West Ham's right; Moreno's cross met by Sterling with his back to goal, perfectly chested down for Coutinho before turning on goal; a wonderful clipped throughball into Sterling, finished from close range under the diving Adrian. It was some of Sterling's best lone-striker play ever, and it was Coutinho's fifth assist of the season.
But Liverpool with Daniel Sturridge were an entirely different proposition. That Lallana switched to right wing-back helped as well, much more creative and dangerous where he was invisible earlier in the match, but Liverpool finally had a player who unsettled the defense: capable of doing all the things Sterling can do but even better: speed, touch, link-up play; capable on the counter or in intricate build-up. Sterling set him up on the break, a no-angle byline shot saved. Lallana set him up via a lofted cross, but Sturridge could only head down rather than on goal, then nearly set him up with a low cross across the six-yard box, just too far in front of the striker.
And then he struck, with aplomb. Interplay between Sturridge and Sterling in midfield, Coutinho finding space after Marriner played advantage when Sterling was fouled, Coutinho dancing around Mark Noble before finding Sturridge in the box. A jaw-dropping left-footed touch that belied his five-month absence to set himself up and find space away from Winston Reid, a flawless right-footed finish inside the near post. Today was Sturridge's seventh substitute appearance for Liverpool in the league. That was his fifth goal as a substitute. And it was another assist for Coutinho, the first time he's had two in a match since the 6-3 victory over Cardiff last March.
It was just 25 minutes, but that was a wonderful glimpse of Liverpool's potential future.
Liverpool retained its newly-found resilience in defense – even though Can had some frightening moments (and strangely switched to sweeper in the second half) – led by the imperious Mamadou Sakho, who was probably Liverpool's man of the match. Liverpool coped well with Carroll, Valencia, and set plays; Mignolet mostly did well in coming to claim crosses from open play and set plays. And it was Liverpool's third consecutive league clean sheet.
And Liverpool combined it with the cutting edge provided by Sturridge. Not only from Sturridge, but also in how he creates space for others because he requires such close attention from opposition defenders. Which was demonstrated by Jordon Ibe's late chance: West Ham defenders all watching Sturridge as Ibe combined with Lallana, picked up possession on the right, and cut into the box, his close-range shot well saved by Adrian with Sturridge putting the rebound wide.
I've had to write it often this season, but one swallow still doesn't make a summer. Especially since Liverpool's next four league matches are against Everton, Spurs, Southampton, and City. Still, based on that performance, it seems summer might not be long in coming.