Raheem Sterling: Can Liverpool Wide Forward Emulate Legend John Barnes?
At just 18 years of age, Raheem Sterling has had a meteoric rise to national stardom over the past nine months.
Having made his first-team debut for Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish at the end of the 2011-12 season, Sterling has suddenly found himself a regular member of not just the squad, but the starting XI under new manager Brendan Rodgers.
In fact, Sterling is currently the player who has made the most appearances for Liverpool in all competitions this season, with 31—one ahead of both key forward Luis Suarez and club captain Steven Gerrard.
Sterling has also made his senior level international bow for England this term, while adding his first two senior goals for Liverpool.
Despite all the hype, the praise and the rapid life-changing series of events that have befallen him, Sterling remains level-headed in understanding what he has actually achieved so far and realistic in where he needs to improve.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Daily Mail, he spoke about his lifestyle and family, friends and Twitter—but it's the way he speaks about his own game which perhaps offers the most telling details of the mix of composure and hunger that he possesses.
Playing predominantly as a wide forward in Liverpool's front line of three, Sterling has inevitably drawn some comparisons with former great John Barnes.
It is there, though, that the similarities of approaching the game largely end.
While "Digger" was a strong and powerful figure, capable of shouldering defenders out of the way as often as dribbling round them, Sterling is a much more slender, shorter and lithe little livewire of a player.
Barnes tended to operate for large stretches of the game down the flank, while also being a potent goal threat coming central, while Sterling—from the left—cuts inside naturally, or plays as almost a second forward, attacking the inside channel, from the right.
Sterling himself knows he is far from a Barnes regent, of course, as well as knowing where he needs to improve his game if he is to have the same level of impact the former Reds captain did. Per the Daily Mail:
I have watched a lot of John Barnes, a Liverpool legend, but we're different players, though our journey from Jamaica is similar.
I want to score more goals and I'll do that by getting in the box more. I'm always learning how I can make that happen. My goal against Sunderland was a decent finish but I should have had more earlier on this season. It's always good to get goals, of course, but I've been unlucky a few times this season, hitting the post four or five times.
Not only that, but the youngster is grounded enough to realise that he has enough quality teammates around him to be able to learn plenty of important attributes.
I don't want to model myself on anyone. I see players that have achieved so much, but it isn't clever to model myself on them because their journey is different.
I take the best bits from lots of players. We have so many world class players at Liverpool. Someone like Suarez, I take so much of his play and make it work for me. On the pitch, I couldn't ask for better people around me at Liverpool, like Gerrard and Suarez who have been there and done it. I take stuff from their game, from the way they are, and I try and take that on.
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
With so much playing time under his belt from the first half of the season, it will be natural for Sterling to take a step back over the next month or two, to recuperate from both a physical and mental point of view as reinforcements arrive for the front line.
That's not to say he doesn't have a big part to play as the season winds down, though. If Liverpool can keep up their improved form of late then they still have an outside shot at a top-four spot, or at the very least of managing a top-six finish.
Sterling will certainly be an important component of the team going forward, both from the bench and in the starting XI when possible.
If he can find the consistency in his game that the early-season performances showed and add a more clinical edge to his game in the final third—as he did for the under-21s and under-18s—then there is no doubt he will be a huge part of the Reds' armoury.
John Barnes played more than 400 games for Liverpool, scored more than 100 goals, amassed a total of 79 caps for England and won eight trophies while playing for the Reds—as well as winning the Players' Player of the Year and the Football Writers' Player of the Year twice.
If the Reds' newest Jamaican-born attacker can go on to have the sort of impact that Barnes did, then he will be justifiably proud of his achievements.
And Liverpool will reap the rewards of investing in, nurturing and getting the very best out of their youth prospects.
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