It’s easy to forget that as recently as this season, Raheem Sterling was on the fringes of the Liverpool team, having failed to build on his promising debut under Kenny Dalglish in 2012.
The composure and cunning shown by Sterling for Liverpool’s opener in the 3-2 win against Manchester City on the weekend – outsmarting Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart – was that of a veteran forward who wasn’t about to be shaken by not only the emotion at Anfield on the day, but also the pressure of vying for the Premier League title at this stage of the season.
The progress Sterling has made during this second half of the season is another fine example of the managerial brilliance of Brendan Rodgers. The Liverpool winger isn’t technically brilliant; he’s highly unlikely to have some of the big guns of European football chasing his signature this summer – though that’s probably a bonus to Liverpool. But he is now vitally important to Liverpool’s game and the tactics employed by Rodgers.
The shrewd thinking of the manager to move Sterling to the tip of the midfield diamond against City – something he’s done in other big games this season – shows his ability to get the most out of his players in such a way that it benefits and complements others in the team.
Rodgers’ description of Sterling as the best winger in England earlier this season would have conjured very few snide remarks. This is a youngster who has been instrumental in Liverpool’s wins against Arsenal and Manchester City of late. Had it not been for poor officiating, his goal at the Etihad Stadium during the Christmas period would have stood and Liverpool would be a point better off.
Sterling isn’t a creator for others, making his position in advanced central midfield an odd choice at first glance. But he’s thriving off the service of those around him, notably Luis Suarez, who has been deployed on the flanks for many of Liverpool’s big games this season.
Down and out last season, Sterling looked to be heading towards that vast group of English players who were hyped to hill after promising early showings. Sterling’s frightening pace was exciting to watch. His naivety and lack of experience was used to his advantage. But the dip in form spanned for so long that it became hard to disguise is as just a routine blip; it was looking more like reality hitting home about where Sterling stood.
Credit, then, to Rodgers for putting a halt to that and turning around the fortunes of a youngster who may prove to be England’s ace card at the World Cup.
Full of confidence – shown by his smart retention of the ball and drive towards goal in the second half against City – and able to leave his stamp on games, Sterling’s transformation is an extension of the revolution taking place at Anfield.