When Raheem Sterling burst onto the scene last season, it was easy to see why there was so much hype around him. A winger of precocious talent, he seemed to have it all: speed, technique, agility and an eye for goal.
Even during his time at Liverpool’s youth academy, he was earning headlines, most notably for a particularly mesmeric performance against Southend United in the FA Youth Cup. Yet as with all promising youngsters, hype is often accompanied by trepidation.
What if he’s not as good as we think? What if he burns out? What if the expectation is too much? What if he decides to play for Jamaica?
The sense of "what if" was further amplified when, after a sparkling start to the season, Sterling barely featured during the second half, limited to appearances off the bench and turning out for the reserves mid-week.
Although it’s not unusual for managers to take highly rated young players out of the limelight—allowing them more space and time to develop in a less intense environment—it still raised questions about Sterling’s future at the club.
This season, those questions have been well and truly put to bed. Not only has Sterling cemented his place in the first team, but he has become an integral component in the league’s best and most exciting forward line featuring Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
Although he started out as a winger, Sterling has found himself deployed in numerous positions this season; from wing-back at the start of the season when Liverpool were playing with a back three, to behind the strikers as part of a midfield diamond. Although he's not defensive by nature, it’s something he has been happy to add to his game.
"He (Brendan Rodgers) has asked me to play fullback a couple of times, and he just wants you to get forward as much as you can as well as defend. It’s one of them; you’ve got to be up for it or your legs are going to be in a bit of pain.
"Obviously no winger really likes to defend—they won’t tell you that (laughs)—but it’s just a learning curve for me, and as a young player you’ll go out there and play in any position that the manager tells you to."
One of the key reasons behind Liverpool’s form this season has been the way in which Rodgers can seamlessly switch between formations, often during the games. At the drop of a hat, they can go from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3, or as we have seen more often recently a 4-4-2 diamond.
Sterling puts this down not only to the players but to the way Rodgers has trained them since he arrived at the club.
"Since he’s been at the club, you can’t knock him; he’s changed the club around massively. Of course, I’ve come in when he’s just started, but it’s one of them; he’s got everyone up for it and wanting to win games and enjoy winning games and enjoy playing football.
"He can always change things around, and I think we’re adapting well to the new formations. It’s one of them; he’s done well to make the team so it can easily change from one formation to another without a big problem."
Without a doubt, though, it has been playing behind Sturridge and Suarez where Sterling has flourished this season. Running from deep, he has an unerring ability to unsettle even the best defenders. Add to that a greater consistency in front of goal, and it’s easy to see why many think he should be starting for England this summer in Brazil.
Moving from winger to inside-forward has played a hand in this, opening up more space through the middle for Sterling to exploit, as he explained:
"With this formation, you’ve got to be able to play both in and outside as a winger and be as comfortable on the ball as anyone else on the pitch. He tells me to come inside to open up my vision a bit more and my awareness, which has really helped me."
Though Sterling is reticent to sing his own praises, others have certainly not been. Among the most vocal has been his manager, Brendan Rodgers, who recently said, as per ESPNFC:
"I think he is the best young player in European football at the moment. He is 19 years of age and I don’t see anyone better. He is intelligent on the ball and has been concentrating on scoring goals."
With 13 goals and six assists to his name this season, his assessment is difficult to argue with. The frightening thing is, at only 19 years old, there’s plenty more to come from Sterling. That's great news for Liverpool and England fans but not really for anyone else.
This exclusive interview was conducted in person by Paul Gleeson.