Sterling set for crucial campaign
Not much seems to have gone Liverpool's way these past few weeks. Luis Suarez left for pastures new, and the transfer of the man identified to replace him, Loic Remy, fell through on medical grounds. Several key players -- including new big-money signings Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic -- have missed valuable playing time through injury, and another expensive recruit, Dejan Lovren, was prevented from joining up with his new teammates on their tour of the US after being denied a visa.
All things considered, results and performances have been encouraging for the most part, although the second-half capitulation to Manchester United in Miami ensured an otherwise successful trip ended on something of a sour note. Despite the numerous setbacks, there have been positives for Kopites to take from preseason, with the displays of Raheem Sterling at the top of the list.
The teenager is in absolutely scintillating form at the moment and looks set to take the Premier League by storm this year. It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise if he does, as he was arguably Liverpool's best forward for much of the second half of last term and was one of the few to emerge from England's pitiful World Cup campaign with his reputation enhanced. Rather than simply "carrying on where he left off," however, the 19-year-old looks set to elevate his game even further.
His performance against Manchester City in Charlotte was electrifying; he led the City defenders a merry dance, scored one terrific goal and was later denied a brilliant second by an incorrect decision from a linesman. It was a fantastic individual display full of direct running, skill, composure, tenacity and searing pace. There was one moment when he knocked the ball past Gael Clichy, gave the full-back a 5-yard start and then just blew by him like an express train. Clichy is no slouch but he was left eating the teenager's dust.
Sterling took that form into the United game, and in the first half Phil Jones and co were made to look incredibly foolish at times by the young England man, who has well and truly put a disappointing 2013 behind him now and is fulfilling the promise shown when he first broke into the senior side.
There's a Suarez-shaped hole in the Liverpool attack and while it would be both unrealistic and unfair to expect Sterling to fill that, it's certainly not unrealistic to suggest he might just be the Reds' most important forward this year.
Fitness permitting, you know what you're going to get from Daniel Sturridge. There is still some room for improvement but it's unlikely that there will be any huge progression from the striker. Statistically at least, he's quite close to reaching his full potential. That's not a knock on Sturridge by any means -- he scored 21 Premier League goals from just 29 games last season. But in terms of goal scoring, his ceiling has surely almost been reached.
Sterling, however, still has plenty of room for growth, and if he takes his game to the next level then that will help to compensate for the loss of Suarez more than anything Sturridge is likely to do.
After forcing his way into the side just before the turn of the year, Sterling found the net nine times during the second half of the season. That was a more than respectable tally for a young player who was not the main goal scorer in the side. He wasn't even the secondary goal scorer; he was the third attacker. Unless Brendan Rodgers pulls a rabbit out of the hat and lands a top striker in the next few weeks, Sterling is now the number two man behind Sturridge.
Goal scoring is definitely an area in which he can and surely will improve. It's a natural progression for a top young player; you'd expect them to become more prolific as they gain experience, maturity and hone their finishing skills. Neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Lionel Messi were prolific in their early years when they were mostly used in wide areas. I'm obviously not putting Sterling in such exalted company, but they do represent what he should be aspiring to.
Sterling has played out wide for most of his career but he showed last year that he can be equally effective playing centrally in a No. 10 role (he was terrific as an emergency right-back, too), and there is a school of thought that he could play as a striker if necessary. He has done that occasionally at academy level, and Rodgers used him there in the second half of the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park in 2012-13.
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He's unlikely to play too many games in that role this year -- especially if Rodgers lands the striker he's been chasing since Suarez departed -- but he won't be pigeonholed into one position either. The Liverpool boss will use Sterling wherever he feels the youngster can cause maximum damage to the opposition, and last season he did that to great effect.
Sterling is a powerful weapon in Liverpool's armoury, but just as important for the Reds is that Rodgers seems to be a master at how best to deploy that weapon.
Recently there have been calls in some quarters for Sterling to be given the iconic No. 7 shirt worn by club greats such as Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Peter Beardsley, Steve McManaman and, until recently, Suarez. There is no doubt that Sterling has the ability to wear the shirt, but I'd prefer he was made to wait a year before that honour was bestowed on him. That's assuming he even wants it; some players grow attached to their original number and are reluctant to change.
He hasn't done enough to earn that shirt yet for me, although admittedly that argument is severely weakened by reports that the club were ready to just hand it to Remy. Besides, what of all the supporters who have already bought shirts with "Sterling 31" on them? Would the club issue refunds to those fans? It's highly doubtful.
Raheem should have to wait a year before earning his stripes, but if he continues the form he's shown so far throughout 2014, he'll be more than worthy of it
David has written three books about Liverpool, and the latest, We Go Again, tells the story of the 2013-14 season.