In early 2013, there wasn’t a more vivid symbol of Brendan Rodgers’ success at Liverpool than Raheem Sterling. They were a side of furious, unrelenting energy, playing the game at a pace and intensity which made their opponents dizzy and nearly took them to a Premier League title. Luis Suarez was the poster child for their literal success, of course, but Sterling—the little bundle of fearlessness that he was—lingers in the memory. His calm, wrong-footing finish against Manchester City at Anfield was a measure of his growing sense of self and his two-goal performance a week later at Carrow Road showed just how comfortable he was with the burden Liverpool were carrying.
What an exciting player that Raheem Sterling was.
Three years on, the landscape around him has changed—as has the atmosphere. In the aftermath of England’s 1-1 draw with Russia at the European Championships, his social media channels pulsed with toxicity. Instagram, like Twitter and Facebook, may be an expected outlet for emotional incontinence, but even within that context the vitriol was rich. Sterling posted a benign image of the Stade Velodrome, replete with the usual platitudes footballers offer after a disappointing result, and a towering wave of acrimony came crashing over his bows.
He had been reasonable in Marseille without being particularly impressive. His positioning was good and his work-rate excellent but he never really threatened to influence the game. Moments of opportunity were created and thrown away and his surging runs invariably ended with a critical delay, a bad decision, or an errant pass. If ever there was an example of what can happen when a player sinks too far into his own mind, then surely Sterling is that case study. He looks shattered and fragile, like he would rather be anywhere other than on a football pitch. The gloss with which he shimmered 18 months ago has been eroded by the harsh light.
In the Instagram post which attracted all the ire, Sterling referred to himself—via hashtag, naturally—as The Hated One. Of course, we’re all guilty of over-analysing banal remarks, especially when they’re made by footballers who shield us from their real personalities, but nevertheless it’s tempting to see it as a further example of something we already know. Sterling doesn’t look right. The manner in which he carries himself, his on-pitch personality and even they way he expresses himself on the pitch have all changed. His game has declined, clearly, but he also appears to be in the process of a character recession. He doesn’t smile and he doesn’t effervesce with the same intangible something that he once did. Maybe that sounds like a wooly point and one which holds no relevance in an age during which footballers are considered airbrushed and robotic, but it seems relevant given his form.
Those concerns have an asterisk. Sterling did suffer a semi-serious injury last season and that made his first year at Manchester City harder than it might have been. It may be, then, that rather than a deep-rooted problem, this malaise is nothing more than protracted struggle for fitness and form, and a consequence of a lack of continuity. Perhaps. But given the circumstances that surrounded his transfer and the ill feeling that continues to fester, it’s also possible that these are symptoms of emotional duress. Sterling was treated overly harshly for moving clubs and while that kind of situation always provokes animosity, he was subject to more criticism than most. All players take abuse from fans, even when they’re loyal, but he was—and remains—a target for not only the entire Liverpool fanbase, but also the large standing army of the club’s ex-players working in the media. That may be an accepted part of modern football, but it must have created an extraordinary pressure on someone who is still very young. Combine those circumstances with the natural difficulties associated with being a £50 million English player, and it totals a heavy, heavy burden.
At the peak of his short Liverpool career, Sterling seemed to benefit from an almost paternal relationship with Brendan Rodgers. A distance clearly grew between them over time, but Rodgers—for all his faults—evidently had a strong psychological impact on the winger. Sterling was made to feel special at Liverpool and, though the world laughed, he clearly benefitted from Rodgers’ Irish lilt and generous hyperbole. By contrast, that’s perhaps something which has been missing in Manchester. Manuel Pellegrini is by all accounts a liked and respected figure within his squad, but there’s little to suggest that he employs the same man-to-man management techniques favoured by the younger generation of managers.
Certainly, there is a very clear difference between Pellegrini’s methods, and those employed by coaches who rely on having an almost hypnotic hold over their players. Neither is necessarily better or worse, but Sterling appears to be galvanised by the second approach, and perhaps during a season in which he has suffered through outside interference, he would have benefited more from the cocooning influence of a Rodgers, a Jose Mourinho or, pertinently, a Pep Guardiola. That isn’t to say that Pellegrini is an inferior manager—or that Rogers belongs in such company—but the Chilean was perhaps not what Sterling needed at this particular moment in his career.
Guardiola could be. The Catalan’s reliance on attacking positioning and subtlety makes him a natural ally for twenty-one year-old , but the emboldening voodoo which seeps through his squads could also be the the elixir to cure Sterling’s malaise. Some may scoff, dismissing a professional’s need for pastoral care, but this is a lost player who needs guidance and a special talent who evidently requires more protection from the swirling animosity that surrounds him.