Since arriving at Liverpool in 2010, Raheem Sterling has been tipped as one of the Reds' best prospects of this early century. Rafa Benitez sent just under a million pounds to QPR for Sterling's services, with performance-related bonuses that could take the final fee all the way up to five million clams. With the Jamaican-born speedster playing (literally) a central role in Liverpool's hunt for glory, it seems likely the Reds will end up shelling out for those bonuses...and everyone involved will be happy when they do.
What's in the Tool Kit?
Speed, speed, speed. After some impressive pre-season performances, Sterling made his full Premier League debut at Anfield against Manchester City and remained a fixture in the starting 11 through the Christmas period. During this stretch (when Rodgers had an empty cupboard in terms of attacking options to compliment Luis Suarez), Sterling showcased quality close control and dribbling ability in addition to the incredible end-to-end speed that was his calling card coming up through the ranks. Further, he surprised many fans with a remarkably low center of gravity that makes him harder to shove off the ball than his short stature would suggest.
Like all other teenage prospects however, Sterling was in need of some serious refinement to these raw skills. Despite solid dribbling ability, Sterling's first touch was inconsistent and he oftentimes needed a few extra steps to fully gather possession - limiting the effectiveness of his searing pace. Even more inconsistent was his total product in the attacking third. Bagging just two goals in 36 first team appearances, Sterling was not a genuine threat to provide the final touch to Liverpool's build-up play.
He also suffered a serious case of burnout over the second half of the season, limiting his explosive athletic ability, and this was compounded by opposition defenses steadily figuring out his game. After bursting onto the scene in the fall, Sterling quietly faded from the limelight in the spring.
Well, all the physical attributes fully returned after a summer of rest and an early-season of limited playing time. You could even argue that his strength in possession has gotten better, with his "boxing out" of Marouane Fellaini an early highlight of Liverpool's victory at Old Trafford.
More importantly, his technical tools have all come on by leaps and bounds. The close control is tighter, allowing Sterling to work in smaller spaces. His first touches may be simpler than those executed by his Uruguayan counterpart, but they have dramatically improved to the point where he can seamlessly gather the ball in his freakishly full flight. Meanwhile, Sterling has become a razor sharp threat in the final third. Liverpool does not emphasize crossing all that much as a team, so Sterling sets the table for others with a combination of incisive through balls and low balls whipped into space behind the last defender (as seen in Sturridge's near miss against City.) Above all, he's developed a real eye for goal, already notching nine goals despite two fewer appearances than last season.
Indeed these technical improvements have all added up to create a startlingly efficient player. Sterling's 2.6 dribbles per game are only a shade behind the Gremlin, yet the teenager is turning the ball over only half as often. Sterling's nine goals from open play are third on the team, despite shooting the ball just over once per contest on average. His passing percentage of 80.4% betters that of Suarez, Sturridge, and Philippe Coutinho, with four assists and 1.5 key passes per contest showing he's got the creative eye as well.
Between the Ears, On and Off the Field:
I've mentioned the inconsistency of Sterling's final product in his debut season and if half of this was down to technique, the other half was down to decision-making. The superfluous step-overs and sprints down cul-de-sacs were understood as a by-product of his non-existent experience, and pretty much forgiven due to his impressive work-rate and willingness to track back defensively.
Regardless, Sterling held something of a reputation as a difficult character. A high work-rate doesn't preclude one from being high-maintenance in the dressing room (Craig Bellamy's golf celebration anyone?), and Sterling's dressing down in pre-season training was another ugly moment within the ugly moment that was Being: Liverpool.
Further, after his emergence into the first-team, Sterling's contract negotiations took a sour turn with his agents figuratively lifting their skirt at every interested suitor to drive up Liverpool's offer. A common tactic to be sure (Toni Kroos has, laughably, been pretending he'd leave Bayern for the mid-table side of Manchester), but that these flirtations came with many of Liverpool's competitive and historic rivals rubbed supporters the wrong way.
Above all of this, the biggest threat to Sterling's ability on the field was the drama of his personal life off of it. Having a child is obviously nothing to apologize for unto itself, but parenthood is a massive responsibility for anyone, much less a teenager. The trip to court to face charges of domestic abuse however, is definitely something for which to apologize.
That's what made this past summer all the more worrisome. Another domestic abuse allegation in August put Sterling's character as a person, much less as a player, under question and seemed to put him in Rodgers's doghouse to start the campaign. It should be acknowledged that Sterling was not convicted of anything in either case, but this leaves us between a rock and a hard place. To take these acquittals as signs of Sterling's total innocence would be called naïve by some (particularly as the allegations were made more than once), yet to condemn the player despite his acquittals would mean ignoring the very foundation of what it means to be "innocent until proven guilty." Either way, we can all agree domestic abuse is an ugly act, something with which no one should want to be associated.
What should be acknowledged is that after a maelstrom of "he needs to focus on the field" talk by Rodgers and Steven Gerrard over the summer and fall months, everything has been all smiles and hugs since. We can't know what Sterling does in his own time, but that the senior leadership at the club is no longer publicly barking at him bodes well.
What also bodes well is his improved decision-making on the pitch as a natural reflection of his extended first team minutes. He sees increasingly larger chunks of the field when in possession and his decision-making in the final third has been superb - probably better than both his senior colleagues, Coutinho and Sturridge.
Sterling played as pretty much a straight winger in his first full campaign. Playing on either side of the 4-3-3 almost exclusively used by Rodgers until the January window, the winger moved up and down the touch line. In turn, his final third involvement usually came after he had gotten around the full back as opposed to cutting into the channels.
The initial simplicity of Sterling's game, both technically and tactically, has made his versatility this season all the more impressive. Still capable of playing on either wing, Sterling's bread and butter now comes through direct sprints in the gap between center and full back. If the full back wants to come narrow and block the inside track, the mighty mite will just take him wide, get to the end line, and cut the ball back into the area. Do this enough and the full back will have to play you square, and this is when Sterling bombs into the channel and bears down on goal. Danny Rose was given vertigo in this manner when Tim Sherwood's circus came to Merseyside.
Developing from a winger to an "inside forward" (or "seven and a half" in a particularly chatty BR press conference) is impressive, but logical. Developing from a winger to an inside forward to a central playmaker in the same season is downright astounding. Sterling took over from Coutinho at the tip of Liverpool's diamond against Southampton and hasn't looked back since. It was a bright cameo and one that earned the trust of Rodgers - the Northern Irishman since using Sterling in that position in huge matches against both Manchester clubs, the second half push for the equalizer against West Ham, and Sunday's win against Norwich City.
We could take a little bit from each of the first three games to highlight his versatility, but his performance against Norwich summed it all up. Driving at goal when in possession, patiently linking play when the defense was deep, and finding teammates for goal-scoring chances when space opened - his work was duly rewarded with two goals, one assist, and a man of the match performance when Liverpool needed it most. From a raw flying winger to evoking memories of Kaka in better days, Sterling's development at LFC over the past two seasons has been nothing shy of exceptional and lies at the very root of the club's surprise title push.
*thanks to Whoscored.com for the excellent statistical work