By Hari Sethi
WHEN Raheem Sterling broke into Liverpool’s first team last season many were rightly enthralled by the level and maturity of his performances. Sterling seemed assured, thoughtful in his decision-making and determined to impress. However, his inclusion in the side was as much down to the squad’s alarming lack of depth as it was to his outstanding promise as a player and after making 36 appearances for the Reds, Sterling looked both mentally and physically spent.
Despite an impressive pre-season where Sterling again displayed why he is widely regarded as one of the biggest talents to emerge from Melwood in recent years, the young forward began the campaign finding himself on the fringes of the first team.
Sterling’s initial appearances this season did nothing to help the youngster’s confidence; his fragmented inclusions in the first team, often as a substitute, found the forward deployed in a variety of positions (including right-wingback) and showcased a player short on confidence and in danger of stagnation.
Back in October I wrote an article suggesting there were two options to prevent Sterling’s development from stalling; sending the youngster on a tailored loan with the guarantee of regular playing time, or providing him with a consistent run in the first team, with the added clarity of a defined role.
Following Sturridge’s prolonged absence through injury, Sterling was rewarded with the latter, a regular run in the side, primarily deployed as a right forward.
Whilst many chose to criticise the youngster’s performances against Hull and Norwich, it became clear that Sterling was simply taking time to adjust to being thrust back into the world of competitive Premier League football.
His displays improved week on week, until his showing against Tottenham proved that not only had the young talent recovered his confidence, he’d also reached an impressive new level of performance.
Freed from the reluctance to take on his man, the youngster seemed both arrogant in his attacking runs, yet mature in his distribution of the ball, reeking havoc on Tottenham’s defence and their ill-advised highline.
In subsequent weeks Sterling has proven that the Tottenham game wasn’t merely an exceptionally good day at the office, but a sign of things to come from the wide forward. Throughout Liverpool’s difficult winter fixture list the Jamaican born star shone, linking up to great effect with the talismanic Luis Suarez and enabling Rodgers’ side to quicken their counter attacking transition.
When analysing Sterling’s recent games it becomes clear that the youngster’s exciting performances are a result of considerable improvement in a number of key areas.
Though Sterling is primarily known for his searing pace over 10 yards, the youngster has worked hard to improve his upper body strength, enabling him to hold onto the ball whilst under considerable pressure. Through playing with Suarez, Sterling has learnt how to shield the ball by backing into opposition players and drawing a foul in the process, a quality he displayed to great effect against Stoke last weekend.
In addition to appearing physically stronger, Sterling has exhibited a considerable leap in his tactical intelligence and discipline. He now regularly tracks back to offer support to his fullback, winning easy fouls to relieve pressure on his defence, admirable traits that Coutinho would do well to replicate. On top of his defensive duties, extensive coaching work on diagonal runs has clearly worked wonders for Sterling, as his well-timed attacking surges in games against Cardiff, City, Chelsea and Stoke have attested.
Arguably the most impressive improvement in Sterling’s game however, is his ability to read the situation and more often that not, pick the right pass; a trait that has long proved elusive to emerging British wingers such as Johnson, Lennon, Walcott and Townsend.
Unlike most young wingers, Sterling plays with his head up and boasting a pass completion average of 81% for the season so far, his distribution of the ball has improved considerably.
Although he has considerably upgraded his overall game, there is one major area, where the youngster still has ample room for improvement, his finishing.
Despite having 11 clear-cut chances this season, Sterling has only managed to convert 2 of these into goals, a statistic he’ll no doubt be well aware of.
Whilst he still seems to lack composure in front of goal, his intelligent movement means that the chances will keep on coming and one hopes that the more he gets the more comfortable the youngster will eventually become. And with attackers such as Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to learn from, Rodgers will hope that Sterling can improve his finishing stats and provide around 10 goals a season in the coming years.
Sterling’s development this season proves just how effective Rodgers’ coaching of the forward has been, yet it also emphasises the importance of affording time and belief to young players. Consistency is often the most elusive of traits for emerging young talents and Sterling’s form will most likely suffer a dip before the end of the season. However, having had the chance to offer glimpses of his huge potential in the first team this season, one hopes that fans will resist the reactionary impulse to criticise the youngster if such a period does comes to pass.
Like so many members of Rodgers’ side Sterling is progressing at pace this year and as fans lucky enough to have him at our club, we should simply sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
Images: David Rawcliffe / Propaganda