Raheem Sterling broke onto the world stage in 2013 with a string of dazzling performances, nearly bringing the Premier League trophy to Anfield for the first time. All the more amazing is that he is still only 19 years old, with so much room to grow and improve into a more rounded player. The truth is that he has displayed the potential for greatness for several seasons now, with other aspects of his game or personal life occasionally letting him down. Limited first team opportunities have been handed to him by Kenny Dalglish and then Brendan Rodgers, before he became an integral part to Liverpool’s project last year. With the acrimonious departure of Luis Suarez to Barcelona, can the young Jamaican-born forward step up still further and fill the power vacuum left by the controversial Uruguayan?
Firstly in a completely literal sense, Suarez’s exit has left the famous Liverpool number 7 shirt open. Sterling currently holds the number 31, but entrusting him with such a famous shirt would show a fantastic degree of faith in the youngster. Famous numbers can often be a burden for players lacking the mental strength to deal with the pressure. For an example, just look at the number 9 at Newcastle. However in Sterling’s case, I believe that quite possibly the opposite effect will be had and he would embrace the situation. A relatively small token it may be, but one that could be a building block to reach an even higher level of performance.
Since his emergence on the Anfield scene in 2012, aged only 17, his game has come on leaps and bounds. His blistering pace has always been noticeable but in his earlier years, this seemed to be his only weapon. While it was certainly effective in patches, there was only so much he could achieve without having the confidence to apply a final ball at the end of a mazy dribble. As has been the case with many players under his tutelage, Rodgers has worked with Sterling to improve him both technically and physically. Now supremely strong for a man his size, he is nudged off the ball by burly defenders far less frequently. Liverpool’s boss showed quite how far his faith extended when he began to not only give him more and more starts, but also move him in-field to the tip of a midfield diamond. Performing to a high level here required a different skill set to that on the flank as he was constantly being harried in a clustered region of the pitch. As has been the theme with Sterling recently, the task did not daunt him and he demonstrated just how much his overall game had improved. While still exhibiting his renowned speed, he had now added fantastic close control, passing and even a goal threat to his talents.
If possible, I foresee his contribution during the coming campaign to be an even greater one. With a greater demand across multiple fronts, consistent performers such as Sterling will be vital to the cause. Impressing in the biggest of matches last season will have placed him as a reliable member of Rodgers’ squad. The Northern Irishman trusts his lieutenants implicitly and once Sterling gave him more than he could ever have hoped for, that trust is difficult to displace. As such, I see the winger as one of the few fixtures in the starting line-up and certainly pencilled in for most games. Not 20 until December and yet just as important as any of his teammates. New signings Markovic and Lallana will have a tough task trying to uproot Sterling from a starting berth and with additional competition in the form of Coutinho, Ibe, and Suso, Sterling will be constantly pushed to stay sharp and in peak fitness. With all of this in his favour, I expect an even better Raheem Sterling this season than we have seen at any time prior, and his class will stand the test of time.