Raheem Sterling has been the name on everyone’s lips so far this season. The 17-year-old attacker has burst onto the scene and quickly become a focal point of Liverpool’s threadbare attack.
He has started all but one of Liverpool’s Premier League matches, as well as featuring in the Europa League and Capital One Cup. While he has performed consistently to a high standard, there has been concern in some quarters that too much is being asked of the youngster too quickly, which has prompted Brendan Rodgers to leave him behind as Liverpool travel to Russia for a Europa League tie this evening.
“He has coped with everything, and the big thing is his courage. I have seen him grow from a young kid to a young man in the last few months. He has really grown and developed,” Rodgers said.
“But the point I have made since the very beginning is it is about making sure the timing is right for these players, not to let them have too much too young and get overexposure.
“He is 17 and we have to protect him. Maybe we will let him out of the pram when he is 18!”
Liverpool’s current situation is vastly different to that of other top Premier League clubs. The likes of Sterling, Spanish teenager Suso and full back Andre Wisdom have all been regular starters in all competitions, despite all being in their teens. Injuries, and lack of squad depth has forced Rodgers’ hand somewhat, as it is hard to imagine Manchester United, Chelsea, or Arsenal fielding so many teenagers week in week out.
There has always been an element of caution regarding young players from the top clubs. Theo Walcott is a prime example of a player who was slowly blooded into the first team, with Arsene Wenger restricting him to scattered substitute appearances and rare starts between the ages of 17 and 19. Interestingly Wenger has gone for a slightly different approach regarding Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, with the 18-year-old earning his fair share of first team starts over the past year, including high pressure games such as the Champions League tie with AC Milan.
Of course each individual case is different, and every once in a while a special talent such as a teenage Wayne Rooney or Michael Owen will come along. Both these players serve as the positive and negative aspect of playing a teenage prospect so regularly.
Wayne Rooney has benefited from the experience of playing at the highest level from such a young age in terms of experience, and has been fortunate with injuries.
Whereas the vast amount of football played by Michael Owen from the age of 17 contributed to a bad hamstring injury in 1999. This injury haunted Owen for the remainder of his career as he continued to break down, and it could be argued he was never quite the same player again as the teenager we all remember from France 98. While Owen still enjoyed a successful career, you often wonder if the defining injury he picked up could have been avoided had he not been exposed to so much high pressure football from such a young age.
As Brendan Rodgers said, it is all about finding the right balance. But Liverpool’s threadbare squad, and the superb form of Sterling puts the Liverpool manager in a difficult situation. At the moment can he really afford to leave him out of the side?
So often this season it has been Sterling and Suarez that look like Liverpool’s only source of attacking threat. Other wide options include Stewart Downing and Joe Cole, both of whom have struggled to deliver since moving to Anfield and have a lot to do to win the fans over. The other is Moroccan winger Oussama Assaidi, signed for just over £2 million from Dutch side Herenveen in the summer. While his cameos have been promising, you feel there is still some way to go before he can be a consistent Premier League performer.
The Capital One Cup defeat to Swansea could in many ways prove to be a blessing in disguise for Liverpool and their young players in particular. The last thing they need is more games and more injuries as they look to battle on with just one fit forward from now until January.
Rodgers has been saying all the right things with regards to protecting Sterling from burnout. Now Liverpool fans will hope he acts accordingly in protecting one of the brightest prospects to emerge from their academy in years.