Only the bitterest of Manchester United supporters would begrudge Raheem Sterling his place in England’s World Cup squad come May.
A sublime performance from Sterling, both offensively and defensively, earned him the man-of-the-match award. With limited international experience and little exposure to European football, the World Cup will be a great opportunity for Sterling to prove himself on the grandest of stages. And if recent form is anything to go by, he’s well placed to set the stage alight.
Sterling’s troubled upbringing, being embroiled in street gangs and crime from an early age, made his case quite a high risk one when Liverpool chose to sign him from QPR’s academy. There was absolutely no doubt about his potential, but his maturity and adaptability for a celebrity lifestyle was the key issue.
With the support of a strong-willed mother, Sterling kept focussed. After joining the QPR Centre of Excellence at under-11s it took him just three years to make his way into the under-18 side. Sterling was a special case at every youth level in his development as a footballer. And now under the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers, Sterling is becoming a special professional.
Sterling’s pre-season training encounter with Rodgers (captured on the documentary Being Liverpool) in his first year in charge may have felt much like having a new strict teacher, whom you write off as reasonable before you’ve given them a fair chance. But Sterling has praised the work Rodgers has done with the squad, describing his impact as a “breath of fresh air”.
Rodgers has been an influence for Sterling both on and off the field, and it shows in his game. An increased sense of maturity and responsibility in his play is tribute to the confidence the manager both has in Sterling, and has instilled within him. He’s adapted into a more team-orientated player. The selfishness and immaturity in his play he displayed at times last season look to have been completely ironed out.
Prior to this season, Sterling was an out-and-out winger, but as Rodgers has tweaked with his tactics and formations Sterling has fit perfectly into wherever he’s been required. For the game against Spurs, Liverpool opted for a 4-3-3, a formation which they hadn’t used for a number of games. Sterling operated largely from the right of the field but on a number of occasions he picked the ball up in central or left positions, succeeding in two take-ons by the left corner of Spurs’ penalty area.
But in Liverpool 3-0 victory over Manchester United, Sterling played at the tip of a midfield diamond getting in amongst United’s deep-lying midfielders and spearheading Liverpool’s breakaways.
Liverpool’s high-tempo pressing game has also required Sterling to take more responsibility defensively, often hurrying the opposition central midfielders or left-back into hurrying in possession. He’s become an increasingly key component to Liverpool’s collective defensive efforts due to his speed and tenacity.
Having played just one more game this season than he did through the whole of the last, Sterling has accumulated seven goals and five assists as opposed to his two goals and three assists from 2012-13. Not only are his performances beginning to fulfil the potential that many were aware of from a young age, but he has the numbers to back it up too.
With Theo Walcott out injured for the remainder of the season, Sterling appears to best fit to replace (and arguably usurp) his fellow Englishman’s place in England’s starting 11. His performances this season have been nothing short of remarkable. Liverpool’s upward curve has combined almost perfectly with Sterling’s increasing influence, and it’s hard not to appreciate what he’s done for the team so far.
His link-up play with Daniel Sturridge, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Glen Johnson is something Roy Hodgson has clearly taken into account as he opted to field all five of them in England’s most recent international friendly. The best international teams have their squads based largely around two or three club sides. Just look at Spain and Germany. If England wish to replicate any measure of success, Hodgson will be wise to take note.
The promotional shots released of England’s World Cup kit suggest the Raheem Sterling is likely to be part of the squad. With Hodgson opting to pick players on form, it would be unfair to choose otherwise. He’s been one of the Premier League’s form players all season and, in my opinion, he should be the frontrunner for the PFA Young Player of the Year.
Italy manager Cesare Prandelli recently remarked that he would love to have Sterling and Sturridge at his disposal come the World Cup. Thankfully, England do. It’s one thing to be aware of Sterling, but it’s a whole different issue stopping him.