The 19-year-old has proved a crucial figure as Liverpool close in on a first ever Premier League title – he deserves to be handed England’s PFA prize, announced this Sunday
By Alex Young
A drop of the shoulder, a quick shimmy to the right, and a stroke of the right foot. Raheem Sterling’s stock was at an all-time high. Running on to Luis Suarez’s smart through-ball against Manchester City, the 19-year-old showed incredible composure and intelligence for such a young player on such a big afternoon.
Sterling’s rise to prominence was officially recognised on Friday when he was named among the six-man shortlist for the Professional Footballers’ Association’s Young Player of the Year award. He celebrated with two important goals against Norwich on Sunday and a place in England’s World Cup squad surely beckons.
But such an impressive end to the season looked almost unfathomable at the start of the campaign as he was struggling for time to impress, stuck behind summer signing Iago Aspas and living off late substitute appearances – at best – for the first five league games.
Sterling had to wait until October 5 and a home clash against Crystal Palace for Brendan Rodgers to trust him from the start, and even then he was played as a right wing-back with considerable defensive duties against the league’s bottom club.
It is this versatility which is so impressive about Sterling. Over the course of the season the teenager has been deployed in six different roles for Liverpool – ranging from his stint at wing-back to all across Rodgers’ front three and, most recently against City, in the No.10 role. He is pivotal to his manager’s flexible 4-3-3 diamond setup.
Sterling is up against Eden Hazard, Aaron Ramsey, Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw and team-mate Daniel Sturridge in the running to be named PFA Young Player of the Year on April 27.
It is heady company, but what he boasts which the others cannot is not just versatility but his consistency in those positions. More impressive still, the two-time England international’s increased presence in the Liverpool team has coincided with their surge to the top of the table – if results go their way they can seal the title next Sunday.
Sterling has played the second-lowest number of league minutes out of the six nominees, boasting 1960, with Ramsey’s 1627 only restricted due to his four-month injury-induced absence. So while the Liverpool man’s overall stats are lacking in comparison, his per-minute averages stand out.
His contribution to this Liverpool side cannot be understated. He creates a chance every 45.6 minutes – which is only bettered by Eden Hazard’s remarkable record of one every 31.7 minutes. The 19-year-old is again only trumped by the Belgian for completed dribbles: one per 25.2 minutes to Hazard’s one every 22.6.
Sterling’s also stacks up impressively for completed crosses – his 16.39% success rate is only marginally bettered by Luke Shaw’s 17.65.
And even though he is the smallest and slightest of a group which also includes Southampton left-back Shaw, Sterling averages a successful defensive 50-50 challenge every 10.7 minutes and an attempted duel every 5.2 minutes. He is always involved.
Following Sunday’s man-of-the-match performance against Norwich City, in which Sterling scored twice and assisted the third in a 3-2 win as Liverpool crucially took advantage of Chelsea’s loss to Sunderland to move five points clear at the top of the table, Rodgers hailed the 19-year-old as the “best young player in Europe”.
“At 19 years of age you don’t see anyone better,” his manager said in the post-match press conference. “His intelligence with the ball, his movement and he’s scoring goals.
“His first goal was a wonderful strike. He’s just shifted it, got his shot off; to beat a goalkeeper of John Ruddy’s quality shows you the quality of the strike.
“[In] his overall performance he’s shown so much maturity.”
Rewind to the beginning of last season and Sterling was the target of Rodgers’ ire, as seen on television show ‘Being: Liverpool’ after the youngster was thought to have said “steady” following a talking to during pre-season training.
His manager replied: “Your attitude you need to improve and your work. You need to improve your attitude.
“You say ‘steady’ to me again when I say something to you and you’ll be on the first plane back.”
Sterling’s game has evolved under Rodgers and his work rate has exponentially improved. In that first start against Palace, Sterling touched the ball just 32 times, completing a meagre 13 passes.
According to Goal‘s player ratings, three of Sterling’s four best performances this season have come against City, Arsenal and Tottenham, with the fourth coming against Norwich. He has flourished and transformed into a player who can perform on the big stage in such a short amount of time.
In his most recent performances, against City and Norwich, he put his team into the lead after six minutes and four minutes respectively, made a clearance off the line, recorded 46 touches and completed 21 passes against the former.
Where Sterling stands out from the other nominees is the extent of his improvement from the start of the season to now – and at the most crucial period. At 19 years old, the forward is playing a key role in bringing the title to a club which boasts a wealth of illustrious past successes, but is yet to claim a Premier League championship. And it is likely to be just the beginning.
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