If Brendan Rodgers was afraid of a meltdown or complacency of any kind by talking up Liverpool’s credential’s in this season’s title race – something he really can’t shy away from at this late stage – the same should be applied to high praise and even over praise of his players.
The Liverpool manager has already singled out Sterling in the past for praise, but went one step further from his declaration that he held the best winger in the country in his squad, to describing Sterling as the best young player in Europe.
On some level, you can understand Rodgers’ thinking. Why not add a few logs onto the fire that has clearly kick started Sterling’s career? The winger is having a very good half season – and half season is important in all this – and naturally needs to be encouraged to continue on this upward trajectory.
But haven’t we been here before? It’s yet another English youngster who is being hyped to the hill after very little work. That’s not to take away from how good and important Sterling has been to Liverpool’s title charge in this second half of the season.
If – and it’s probably when at this stage, rather than if – Liverpool win the league, it will be because Sterling offered an invaluable component of a successful team. His versatility and willingness to learn has also played a significant part in his and the team’s transformation.
The problem is it’s just all too familiar. It’s another Andros Townsend story. And that’s not to compare the two players. The hype surrounding them, justified or not, is similar due to the little backing they each have in their respective claims. For Townsend, it was that he should be in England’s starting XI this summer after doing very little in a Tottenham shirt. For Sterling, it’s that he’s better than those in his age group, who have achieved more, based on four or five months.
But to analyse Rodgers’ comment on Sterling would require a confirmation of what actually constitutes a ‘young’ player. Is it a 19-year-old like Sterling? If we’re going by the Young Player of the Year award nominees, it could be a 24-year-old Daniel Sturridge. If that’s the span we’re working with, then Sterling is far from a credible name at the top of that list.
Both Marco Reus and Toni Kroos are 24, with the latter having accomplished more than most players around Europe.
What if we take a more realistic angle and use 21 years of age as the boundary? Mario Goetze, Thibaut Courtois, Raphael Varane, Julian Draxler, and Paul Pogba would then be included on that list. Suddenly Sterling is starting to look a little out of place.
Each of those players mentioned have been at the top of their age group for a prolonged spell. Paul Pogba, for example, moved to Juventus and became a feature in a side that won the Scudetto. He’s about to do it again, with Juventus on course to retain the league title. The French international has been described as the best young midfielder in the world, and whether you agree or not, he definitely has the backing to support that claim.
Sterling, while being impressive this season, is still to build up that reputation. He may win the league title next month, but what about next season? It’s the same thought process that should have gone into the praise of Andros Townsend: how long can this form continue? Is he the real deal?
With Sterling, would it be out of hand to say a little more than five months of good form is needed to really judge how good a player he is?