Raheem Sterling is one of the Premier League’s most in-form players, and is on the way to establishing himself as one of the best forwards in the English top flight. The 22-year-old is a key part of arguably the most formidable side in the league in 2017/18, with Pep Guardiola poised to deliver the first title to the Etihad Stadium in four years, vindicating the winger’s efforts to leave Liverpool in 2015. And this rise under Guardiola, once Jurgen Klopp’s managerial adversary in Germany, serves up a frustrating reality for the Reds.
After swiftly cementing himself as the jewel in Liverpool’s academy following his move from Queens Park Rangers in 2010, Sterling was handed his debut by a club legend in Kenny Dalglish. Replacing Dirk Kuyt with six minutes left to play in a 2-1 defeat to Wigan Athletic towards the end of the 2011/12 campaign, he became the club’s third-youngest player in history. Trudging off the field at the DW Stadium alongside the likes of Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Andy Carroll, Sterling’s emergence on the first-team stage for Liverpool helped usher in a seismic shift on Merseyside shortly after. Dalglish, after leading the Reds to their only trophy of the decade so far in the League Cup, was dismissed by owners Fenway Sports Group and replaced by a new model in Brendan Rodgers.
Rodgers arrived having made his name as a progressive young manager at Swansea City, with the Ulsterman earmarked as the man to drag Liverpool into a new generation of success. He presided over a host of chances that summer, with the veteran trio of Kuyt, Craig Bellamy and Maxi Rodriguez leaving, along with the likes of Carroll, Alberto Aquilani, Charlie Adam and Jay Spearing. While they were cleaning out their lockers at Melwood, in came the Fox Soccer cameras, with the Reds subject of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, covering their pre-season tour of North America and Rodgers’ preparations for his first campaign at Anfield.
A shambolic affair that saw Rodgers depicted as a David Brent-like narcissist, Being: Liverpool is perhaps most notorious for a moment shared between the manager and a 17-year-old Sterling. “You say ‘steady’ to me again when I say something to you, you’ll be on the first plane back,” Rodgers warned his young winger at Liverpool’s training camp in Boston. Whatever the perception of the documentary, this saw Rodgers quickly make his mark on his new squad, and seemingly prompted Sterling into an excellent start to life in the first team.
He made 36 appearances for the Reds in 2012/13, including 22 as part of Rodgers’ starting lineup, scoring three goals and laying on a further six. The following season saw him form the Premier League’s most devastating attacking unit alongside Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, scoring 11 and assisting 12 in 39 games as Liverpool came the closest they have come to winning the title since the league’s inception. His role at the tip of Rodgers’ midfield diamond in the latter stages of the season saw him outshine Liverpool’s fabled ‘SAS’. But with silverware eluding Rodgers’ side, Suarez opted to leave for Barcelona and the Reds were unable to recapture their form. Sterling still scored 11 goals and assisted 10 in 52 games in 2014/15, but his campaign was shrouded by the dark cloud of his discontent under Rodgers. By July of 2015, he was a City player, with Rodgers pinning the blame on the player’s representative, Aidy Ward, for fuelling a contract dispute that sparked a toxic relationship with Liverpool’s supporters ahead of his £49 million move—but as Ward suggested in 2015, there was “no issue with anyone but Rodgers.”
Sterling took time to settle at the Etihad, though he once again notched double figures for both goals and assists in his season under Manuel Pellegrini, but the arrival of Guardiola in 2016 has lifted the youngster to another level. He assisted 21 goals, as well as scoring 10, in 47 games last term, and this season he has already struck eight times, providing for his team-mates on two occasions, in just 11 outings, averaging a goal or assist every 70.2 minutes. He already has 54 goals and 69 assists to his name over 269 games for Liverpool, City and England. For a player who doesn’t turn 23 until December, Sterling is operating at a high standard on a consistent basis, and uMaxit Football’s City columnist Stephen Tudor believes Guardiola’s arrival has seen the No. 7 become a more well-rounded player.
“Rodgers and Liverpool deserve most of the credit for the influential and confident winger we’re seeing today. They took a raw talent and patiently honed him into a potent weapon who terrorised defences for fun,” Tudor attested. “However, it’s equally true to say that the Reds’ template of football—that maximised Sterling’s ferocious pace and directness—allowed some pretty startling flaws in his game to be tolerated. Here was a player whose top-end attributes were exceptional; it was the basics that needed altering from his rudimental understanding of game-management right down to correctly striking through a ball.
“What we’re witnessing under Pep are improvements month on month. His habit of running into traffic has been eradicated; his finishing is significantly sharper; his awareness of the movement around him is intuitive. Most encouragingly of all his decision-making has improved tenfold, a direct result of the positional drills that Pep works on over and over again in training.”
Sterling is now blending his searing pace and dazzling dribbling ability with a more patient approach in possession, a better understanding of space and a more team-centric approach; it can be argued that the winger already operated with a high work rate off the ball, but he is now able to dominate games more consistently. Perhaps most importantly, Sterling is playing with more conviction, more confidence and more ruthlessness—leading to his improved output in front of goal.
This evokes a frustrating ‘what could have been?’ scenario for Liverpool, with Ward attesting shortly after Klopp’s arrival that Sterling working under the German “could have been a dream come true.” The Reds’ new system is built around a pair of lightning-fast wingers in Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, with the duo efficient off the ball and exceptional in possession, interchanging at will to baffle defences; and it is easy to see how Sterling would have fit in under the current regime at Anfield. It is futile, of course, to speculate over his development if he remained, but it remains frustrating to witness one of the finest young players to grace Anfield in recent years thrive elsewhere when the supposed orchestrator of Sterling’s demise at Liverpool left just three months after he did.