Liverpool’s 3-0 victory over Tottenham last weekend will be remembered as Mario Balotelli’s debut in a Reds jersey; the striker expected to continue the goalscoring exploits of Luis Suarez for the Anfield side and one of football’s blockbuster names through his ability to blend the ridiculous with the sublime.
But in truth, the show was stolen by one of the supporting acts, Raheem Sterling, and it’s hardly the first time the youngster has thrust the limelight from Liverpool’s more coveted names.
His afternoon was capped with a goal – it could have been a brace if Sterling’s mazy second-half run into Tottenham’s box wasn’t followed up by a tame attempt to poke past Hugo Lloris from close range – but there was far more to Sterling’s performance than that. He recorded the most shots on target, key passes, through balls, successful dribbles and won the most fouls of any player on the pitch, as well as recording two tackles, in a potent all-round display.
Last season, following an equally exceptional ninety minutes against Norwich City in which Sterling netted twice, Brendan Rodgers dubbed the England international ‘the best young player in Europe’.
High praise indeed, which admittedly, I took with a pinch of salt. You couldn’t question the 19 year-old’s form or its importance in Liverpool’s 15-game unbeaten run at the end of last season. Yet, my interpretation was that Sterling had propelled himself from the coattails of his side’s ever-growing momentum throughout the campaign, his strong performances fuelled by the confidence such a season would naturally provide.
I didn’t see his situation as particularly different to Jordan Henderson’s, Philippe Coutinho’s or John Flanagan’s – or the enormity of youngsters who have come and gone at Manchester United or Arsenal over the years.
Yet Sterling’s consistency is hard to ignore – all the more for the fact he took his form to the World Cup and has now approached the new Premier League season in the same manner he finished the last. The Liverpool forward has already claimed two goals and one assist in just three outings, averaging 2.3 key passes and three dribbles per match.
Is it time to take the teenager seriously as contender for the informal yet honourable title of the best young player on the continent?
In a climate where key players for major clubs only appear to be getting younger – Barcelona spent €57million on then-21 year-old Neymar in summer 2013, while Real Madrid splashed out €80million on 23-year-old James Rodriguez just a matter of months ago – that might seem like a rather audacious claim.
But these are players who boast several seasons at senior level. Sterling, on the other hand, has thus far amassed just 79 competitive senior appearances and spent a solitary campaign as a genuine, established member of Liverpool’s starting XI, yet he is already an essential part of it. Who else across the continent can actually match Sterling’s quality and importance to the Anfield cause at the tender age of just 19?
There’s plenty of names worth a mention. Loaned out Juventus striker Domencio Berardi, aged 20, kept Sassuolo in Serie A last season virtually singlehanded, with a return of 16 goals in 29 appearances. 18-year-old Max Mayer, after claiming six goals and three assists last season, is surpassing the reckoning of fellow Schalke prodigy Julian Draxler in the transfer plans of many top European clubs, and 20-year-old Hakan Calhanoglu is another Bundesliga youngster showing tremendous output at a tender age. Then there’s the enormous potential of Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj, and Monaco winger Lucas Ocampos. Everton’s Ross Barkley can also be thrown into the mix, while Marquinhos and Adrian Rabiot of PSG, Luke Shaw of United, Oliver Torres and Saul Niguez of Atletico Madrid, represent the less advanced positions.
But none have impacted a major club and their international team in the same manner as Sterling has over the last 18 months. He was Liverpool’s fourth-top scorer in all competitions last season with 10 goals and played pivotal roles in all of their major fixtures, finding the net against Arsenal, Manchester City, Tottenham and Southampton, before leaving the World Cup as arguably the only England player with his reputation improved.
That saw Sterling claim the Young Player of the Year award at Anfield – an accolade not to be ignored considering the enormous berth of youthful talents on show for the Reds last season. In his absence, that award could easily have gone to Jordan Henderson, John Flanagan, Mamadou Sakho, Philippe Coutinho or Daniel Sturridge.
And Sterling’s transformation throughout the campaign epitomises why he should be considered as Europe’s leading teenager. He started the year as a quick, inconsistent winger, the type of which we’ve seen on a multitude of occasions before. He soon found himself at right wing-back, showing tactical understanding beyond his years and the ability to adapt to a completely alien role.
But by the end of the season, Sterling was manning one of the most crucial spots in modern football for Liverpool – the tip of midfield. He provided defensive energy and quality going forward, protecting the engine room whilst linking it with the Reds’ potent strike-force. The role gave him great freedom in a positional sense, to find space of his own accord and move between the channels, but it comes with crucial responsibility too; if there’s one position where limited quality becomes quickly exposed, it’s unquestionably at No.10.
Praising home-grown players too soon is the perpetual curse of the British media, but ignoring Sterling’s progress over the last two seasons would be an equal crime. If Raheem Sterling isn’t currently the best young player in Europe, if there’s another teenager out there who betters his importance, output and maturity at a club of Liverpool’s stature, then he’s certainly not far behind.