Raheem Sterling: Why Liverpool Winger's Dip in Form Is No Problem for Reds
Liverpool's young winger Raheem Sterling made waves in the opening months of the season with a string of lively, exciting and even explosive displays which made a mockery of his 17-year-old status as a reserve team winger only a few months previous.
Playing every week alongside Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, and proving a match-winner with assists or a goal on more than one occasion, it was inevitable that the fans would quickly see him as a must-play member of the first team squad.
Sterling continued in good form for a number of months, but around December it became apparent that a break was needed; Sterling wasn't the dynamic attacker of a few weeks back and the pressures of regularly being relied upon we starting to take their toll.
He's been out of the Liverpool team since mid-January, leading some in the media to label him "struggling" and conclude that he is set for a loan spell (via Metro).
In actual fact, Sterling's disappearing act from the first-team scene is nothing to be worried about, and on the contrary, should have been entirely expected.
This is a young man who has been given his first tastes of starting matches on the professional stage only this season, yet soon after was called upon as one of the first-team members to act as an impact player, to change the game in Liverpool's favour, ahead of experienced internationals such as Stewart Downing or Nuri Sahin.
Away from the pitch, he was also facing constant questions about his long-term commitment to the team, as both player and club held off signing a new contract until he reached his 18th birthday, while he also went through a few more personal tribulations too.
It is not inconceivable that football became, for a time, something of a release for Raheem Sterling, with the pitch offering an escape from the trials off of it.
One thing is clear, and has been for some time to those who have tracked his progress in the younger age groups of the club; Sterling is a damn fine talent, and can certainly be a major part of Liverpool's attack for the next five or eight years, if he so chooses to stay that long.
But he's not Lionel Messi. He's not Luis Suarez.
He's a (now) 18-year-old who, at one point during the season, had featured in more competitive matches than any of his teammates, and had been asked to perform week in, week out, without a break, because of the paucity of depth of Liverpool's squad.
Of course he was going to hit the wall at some point.
Liverpool supporters should be thankful that he held on as long as he did, until new recruits Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge could add some much-needed variance to the Reds' attack.
The media, and followers of the English national team, should perhaps be grateful that they got to witness his confidence and talent result in a first international cap, not cast him aside as five-month wonder who has crashed and burned before his debut season was even out.
Sterling will be back next season and ready to play a part in Liverpool's challenge for a Champions League place, that much we should be sure of.
What should Raheem Sterling's role be with Liverpool next season?
Of course, he'll have his moments where youthful exuberance, mental inexperience or even plain old poor form takes its toll.
But aren't we still seeing that from pretty much every other member of the team at times, too?
Defensive mistakes have haunted Liverpool this season, while inexcusable profligacy at the other end of the pitch has been a costly part of the last two campaigns.
Sterling is experiencing nothing untoward, unexpected or worrisome. It's simply a part of growing up as a footballer.
He needs time to rest and recover mentally as much as physically, and if he can be given that time for the remainder of this year and come back ready to go again in summer, there will be one more asset to a Liverpool attack which is looking more impressive by the month.
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