It's Time To Accept That Liverpool's Sterling Is Up There With Arsenal's Alexis & Marco Reus
‘He is the best young player in European football at the moment.’ The words of Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers after Raheem Sterling inspired his side to a 3-2 win over Norwich almost six months ago. A few eyebrows were raised at the Northern Irishman’s bold appraisal of the 19-year-old, particularly given the wealth of young up-and-comers with superstar status across the continent (few would have put Sterling in the mix with the likes of Marco Reus and Alexis Sanchez in the footballing world), but after a sustained period of impressive form for club and country, it seems that his mentor may have a point. While he forms part of an emerging force under Rodgers alongside the likes of Coutinho and Balotelli, he’s become the shining light in an England team often found wanting when it comes to attacking creativity.
There was little to take from England’s dour but wholly predictable 1-0 snoozefest against Norway, save perhaps for the midfield-diamond formation with Sterling at its tip, a tactical switch that sparked Roy’s boys into life and laid the blueprint for England’s success against Switzerland. Free from Hodgson’s beloved but cripplingly sclerotic 4-4-2, Sterling could move between the Swiss lines like a beefed-up Scrappy Doo, out-muscling players twice his size and providing much needed support to Welbeck and Rooney. Hodgson has taken notes from Rodgers by playing the 19-year-old ‘in the hole’, a stroke of ingenuity from the Liverpool boss and one that the England manager would be wise to continue replicating.
In the not so distant past, Sterling was seen as an out-and-out winger, a speedster who would work best when beating a full-back and crossing from the byline. But as we've seen with the likes of Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez, the winger as an inside-forward or playing just off the striker can be devastatingly effective. Sterling’s transformation into a new kind of number ten has been aided by his physical development. The speed at which he travels with the ball is frightening, but that alone is not enough to be a great player, otherwise we’d be talking about Gabby Agbonlahor and Aaron Lennon in the same vein, which – let’s face it – they’re not. The importance of upper body strength and that often talked about ‘low centre of gravity’ cannot be understated at this level. It is the ability to turn on a sixpence and drive past defenders with the ball glued to your feet that makes the difference, key attributes that have made Lionel Messi the best player in the world, and that have propelled Sterling into Europe’s elite.
The debate over who should play in the hole for England is over, with Sterling set to flourish as his country’s midfield spearhead. Wayne Rooney has tried and failed to make an impact in this role and, with Sterling now the most explosive player in the team, the pressure on the England captain should ease. The overhead-kick against Man City and the screamer against Arsenal are a thing of the past for the Man Utd man. He is a phenomenal footballer who has achieved a hell of a lot in a short space of time, but the spotlight needs moving and the chalkboards scrubbed out, as Sterling takes centre stage for his country. With the 19-year-old at the heart of the attack in a fluid, progressive system, there is hope for this England team yet.