They’re too rigid, British players. Not enough flexibility. One-trick ponies, flat-track bullies, whatever else you want to call them.
At least that’s usually the perception of many, yet this Premier League season has seen some young talents blossom on Merseyside which defy the theory.
The likes of Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Jon Flanagan have all starred as Everton and Liverpool have become the two most watchable teams in England, teams which are currently on a run of 15 straight league victories between them.
The trio are all clever footballers, able to take up spaces and positions which benefit their teams in different ways, but Henderson and Flanagan have a team-mate who outshines them both in that department.
After bursting on the scene largely because Liverpool had no one else to play instead of him in the first half of last season, Raheem Sterling didn’t really start this one too auspiciously.
It was the beginning of October, and with Brendan Rodgers debuting his three centre-back system that lasted for three-and-a-half Premier League games, Sterling was pressed into service as a right wing-back against Crystal Palace.
He may have won a penalty which Steven Gerrard converted (thereby setting a tone for the months to come) but Sterling looked nervy during his first league start of the season, he was sometimes unwilling to receive the ball and the Anfield crowd noticed.
The discussions in the pubs around the ground following the 3-1 win and in the build-up to the next home game against West Bromwich Albion, a 4-1 win in which Sterling didn’t play, were about how he didn’t have a future at the club, how he was a tearaway, a loose cannon, how Victor Moses was a better player. How far Sterling has come in the six months which have followed has almost defied belief.
Except Rodgers always did believe in him.
Even after he was poor again on his next league start in the 3-1 loss at Hull in December (where he was by no means alone) the Northern Irishman stood by him. He started the next game against Norwich, scored and hasn’t looked back since.
Well, he’s only looked back when he’s had to.
Because what has been most impressive about the rapid rate of development that the 19-year-old has shown this season is his awareness of everything that is going on around him, front, back, and on either side.
Had you asked the fans at that Crystal Palace game that five months later they’d be watching Sterling starring in the No. 10 position as Liverpool strolled to a 3-0 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford you’d have got a few funny looks. And that would just be from the polite ones.
Crystal Palace are one of the five teams that Liverpool now face before the end of the season, knowing that five victories will secure them the most remarkable and unexpected of Premier League titles.
It is no exaggeration to say that Sterling is one of the club’s most important players in this run-in, up there with Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and the like.
When things weren’t working out for Liverpool in the first half against West Ham at Upton Park last Sunday, Rodgers opted to switch the formation, taking off the ineffective Philippe Coutinho and replacing him with the tougher Lucas Leiva, moving Sterling to the head of a midfield diamond as he did so.
As Celtic manager Neil Lennon expertly pointed out on that evening’s Match of the Day 2 (video supplied by @MostarLFC), this switch allowed the full-backs Flanagan and Glen Johnson to get further up the pitch, thereby pinning West Ham back somewhat and ultimately winning the penalty from which Gerrard could secure a crucial three points.
What was less perceptible in this change though—but what was again spotted by Lennon—was that this move freed up Sterling to do what he does best, charging at worried defenders with his electric pace.
Whereas at the beginning of the season, and indeed in that Palace game in October, it was possible to think of Sterling as just your bog standard English winger—Andros Townsend, Adam Johnson, Aaron Lennon, Stewart Downing—it has now become clear that he is much, much more than that. Can you imagine any of those players making such an impact at the head of a diamond?
If you were to pinpoint exactly when the change in his game occurred, then you might be led to the 5-0 win over Tottenham at White Hart Lane in mid-December, a performance which plenty still feel is Liverpool’s best of a season in which there’s a lot of competition for that honour.
Sterling was stationed on his familiar right-hand side then, but the merciless manner with which he tore into Spurs left-back Kyle Naughton in the opening 20 minutes set the tone for the entire afternoon. Suarez scored in the 18th minute, and there was only one winner from there. Naughton didn’t even come out for the second half.
That win was achieved without the injured Sturridge and Gerrard, and so Sterling and Coutinho were either side of Suarez with Henderson and Joe Allen making mischief in midfield and Lucas holding.
Despite this performance and others, it is the midfield diamond which has arguably been Liverpool’s most effective formation this season, seeing as it allows Suarez and Sturridge to get as close to each other as possible without the uncertainty that came in defence when Rodgers played three at the back.
It is a system the manager is turning to when he needs big results away from home, such as the wins at Southampton and Manchester United and then in the second half at West Ham.
Of course Coutinho has all of the natural abilities to play at the head of this diamond, and you might indeed view the Brazilian as more of a natural No. 10—he wears it on the back of his shirt after all—but when he’s searching for an X Factor and someone to really sparkle in such an important role within his team, Rodgers is frequently turning to Sterling.
He couldn’t do that if the teenager was just another quick player who wanted to get to the byline and cross the ball into the box, and the trust he has placed within Sterling only seems to improve the young Londoner even more.
He’s only 19, and so it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to see him left out of the starting XI on occasion, with Rodgers now trusting a pretty settled side in his quest to win the league title.
In the past six weeks or so—or at least before Daniel Agger’s injury saw him miss the West Ham game—you could predict 10 of the Liverpool 11, with the one missing out usually one of Sterling, Coutinho or Allen, depending on what setup Rodgers has gone for.
Barring injuries or the dreaded suspension that Gerrard needs to avoid picking up against Manchester City, that will be the case for the rest of the season, too, but in Sterling Rodgers knows he possesses a player who has grown into one of the division’s most effective in two positions, either out wide or centrally.
Any talk of the youngster lacking the flexibility or the knowledge to succeed should now be blown away emphatically.
About as emphatically as Sterling races away from opposition defenders, in fact.
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