Is Raheem Sterling now the best teenager in Europe?
The rise and rise of Raheem Sterling has been arguably one of the most intriguing stories of the last year in English football.
As the dying embers of a faded English golden generation finally burn out, a new crop of talented young starlets has burst onto the scene.
This was proved when England set off to the 2014 World Cup with a squad whose average age was the second youngest in England’s history, after the young bucks of 1958.
There are plenty of players to get excited about among this new generation. Luke Shaw, Ross Barkley and John Stones have all been talked about at one point or another, but at present the player who stands out above all as the poster boy for this English new era is Liverpool’s number 31, Raheem Sterling.
Nine goals, five assists and a string of frightening performances last season and in the opening games of 2014/15 – particularly the 3-0 win at Spurs in which Sterling tore the Lilywhites apart – has seen the 19-year-old grow in importance both to club and country. To the point where, as the Champions League kicks off for another season this week, it’s not hyperbolic to pose the question: is Raheem Sterling the best teenage footballer in Europe’s flagship competition?
Sterling’s development into one of the outstanding young players on the continent has been quite remarkable. Already this season he’s the man of the moment. John Terry thinks he’s ‘brilliant’, Gary Neville has called him ‘absolutely devastating’ arguing that Sterling would get into any international squad, while his manager Brendan Rodgers thinks, quite simply, that Sterling is ‘turning into a beautiful young man.’
The rise and rise of Raheem
We'll let you be the judge of that, but the Jamaican-born youngster is undoubtedly an attractive sight on a football field. His sharp rise is a testament both to Sterling’s natural abilities, work ethic and maturity, and the intelligent man-management of his manager Rodgers.
Sterling made his Liverpool debut under Kenny Dalglish in 2012, a late substitute for Dirk Kuyt in a 2-1 home defeat to Wigan. But it’s under Rodgers that the changing of Liverpool’s guard from old to new was put in full effect. The 19-year-old has come to embody Rodgers’ Anfield revolution.
Liverpool's biggest question during the summer was how to replace Luis Suarez. The Merseysiders' summer dealings and newly beefed up squad indicate a kibbutz style approach of shared responsibility for replacing the Uruguayan’s 31 goals and 12 assists.
Rather than opt for a high-cost, high-calibre, all bells and whistles star striker, Rodgers’ Billy Bean-esque, Moneyball approach to replacing Suarez has been to duck the question completely.
How do you replace Suarez? Well, you don’t. Replacing him is impossible, goes the theory, but if Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert can score 10 goals each and Adam Lallana, Alberto Moreno, Emre Can and Lazar Markovic weigh in with another 10 goals and 12 assists between them, Suarez’s absence is compensated for.
Such an approach works in theory, but in practice it’s quite different. Two defeats from Liverpool’s opening four games has laid bare the need for key players who can carry the can in important moments.
Sterling has become one of those players. His exceptional dribbling ability, acceleration and the all-round chaos he creates have become fundamental aspects of Liverpool’s high-tempo, in-yer-face attacking system.
Sterling’s precocious tactical understanding is another element of his game that shouldn’t go unappreciated. He can play on either flank or at the tip of a midfield diamond, excelling there for club to the point where Roy Hodgson is now considering Sterling for that position for his country, ahead of Wayne Rooney.
Sterling’s flexibility makes him a hugely dangerous opponent and this attacking potency, it appears, can’t yet be replicated by Liverpool’s other players, despite Rodgers’ determination to rest the youngster. At only 19, Sterling has almost become undroppable.
Herein lies Liverpool’s problem. Rodgers has spoken of attempting to preserve Sterling by resting him at regular intervals. “Some managers would take a stance of ‘I don’t care’ because they might only be in a job for three, four or five years and so make sure he plays as much as he can for you,” Rodgers commented on Sterling, who’s made more than 80 senior appearances for Liverpool before his 20th birthday.
“But I have welfare for the boy. That is vital for me. I think it is critical that, in 10 years’ time, he is approaching his peak as opposed to having played his best games.”
Admirable comments, but unfortunate timing for Rodgers: resting Sterling against Aston Villa only resulted in defeat for Liverpool (who were also without another key man in Daniel Sturridge, it should be noted). Inadvertently, Rodgers has made a rod for his own back.
Rather than minimise the pressure, having rested Sterling for that defeat, the perception of Sterling’s significance to Liverpool has now grown further, not shrunk. Any future decision to rest Sterling will now be fiercely scrutinised, putting Rodgers in a tricky situation.
Sterling is now so fundamental to Liverpool’s gameplan that, as he prepares for his first taste of Champions League football, it begs the question: is any other teenager in the Champions League so important to their team? Can we legitimately conclude that Sterling is the best under-20 player in Europe?
Perusing the list of talented U20s in the 32 teams in this season’s Champions League squads, there are around 40 players age 20 or under who can be identified as having the requisite talent to make an immediate impact on the competition, though many will struggle for game time – including Hector Bellerin and Serge Gnabry at Arsenal and Nathan Ake and Kurt Zouma at Chelsea. That list narrows further when you weigh up potential and the kind of significance to a team that Sterling has shown at Anfield.
We’ve identified five players who can challenge Sterling for the crown, so let’s take a closer look...