Key Track: MGMT- Kids
The music video for "Kids" by MGMT displays a little kid experiencing the scary world for the first time, finding both happiness and horror amongst the unknown. This was Raheem Sterling in a sense as he was thrust into significant playing time before he even turned 18 in December. As a kid in the brightest of spotlights, Sterling faced immense pressure to succeed. In large part he responded to this pressure with incredible ability, stepping up in the type of situation where so many prodigies of the past have faltered. But like the little kid in the music video, Sterling was also faced with daunting monsters such as a nagging injury that ended his season early and an assault charge that threatened to ruin his image.
While small and perhaps a bit fragile at times, Sterling showed off his extraordinary tools this past year. His primary assets are his pace and dribbling ability. These traits often exploited defenses during Sterling's 24 total appearances. But while being strictly a "runner" is a useful role, Liverpool supporters were hoping that Sterling could continue his transition into becoming a "player". Going from speedster to all around star isn't the type of transition that happens immediately, and Sterling certainly had his growing pains. There were times at the beginning of the season where he'd play the wrong through ball or make a pass that lacked crispness. However, Sterling made solid improvements in his passing game on the whole. His passing is already roughly on the level of Solomon Kalou, a player who I referred to as Sterling's floor in an article last July. If Sterling can get his crossing accuracy up from 15% to at least the team average of 19%, it will make a big difference. The ability to cross will keep defenders honest against the fakes and cutbacks that are a staple of any dribbling repertoire.
The other skill that separates a "player" from a "runner" is shooting ability, which not only includes how well someone finishes, but also whether or not they know when to shoot. Sterling scored two Premier League goals which both came on quality finishes and had another shot deflected in for an own goal. But often times he deferred to the older players such as Suarez and Gerrard rather than taking shots for himself. There's no inherent fault in that as a 17 year old's natural role on a team isn't as goalscorer. In the U-21 Liverpool side he took plenty of chances on his own and subsequently has a much better career goal tally there. Nevertheless, it is important to watch for whether Sterling's confidence in front of the net will improve in the coming year. Sterling has plenty of goals in him if he becomes more aggressive.
Sterling's impressive opening act on the big stage was unfortunately ended prematurely when Brendan Rodgers decided to rest him for the last few months because of the winger's fatigue and a nagging thigh injury. On the injury, BBC quotes Sterling as saying, "My injury kicked in from about November. Every game from then on was about 50/50 for me". It's pretty striking actually that Sterling played some of his best football of the season while nursing an injury. Brendan Rodgers was wise to eventually sit him, and it appears that he'll be ready for the pre-season.
Off the pitch Sterling was accused of assault, however the charge was eventually dropped after key witnesses failed to show up. That is by no means a declaration of innocence as the trial never occurred, but given the situation, Sterling has been widely cleared of wrong doing in the eye of the public.
The moment that supporters will remember most from Sterling is his fantastic finish past Simon Mignolet of Sunderland in early January. Watch it here.
Season Grade: 6
There were ups and there were downs, but in the end there was just a kid showing the world his immense talent. He absorbed the glory of being in the first team with a never ceasing smile and he aptly dealt with the monsters which aimed to tear him down. After signing a long term contract, we will all be able to watch Sterling mature and develop before our eyes. It seems that Raheem's extended absence allowed him to slip under the radar a bit. Don't let that fool you though. This 18 year old kid is something special.