Liverpool‘s Raheem Sterling is just a normal kid who struck it lucky. He’s a normal kid living in a very unrealistic world. And that’s the message Brendan Rodgers will be keen to send Sterling’s way following his new £30,000 per week contract and a lead role in some of the headline fixtures of this Premier League season.
But players like Sterling always need to be handled with kid gloves. We’ve seen young players break down for one reason or another, and Rodgers will need to ensure the player is kept well away from that path.
It was a surprise that Sterling made the starting XI for the first meeting with Manchester United this season, following on from an away trip in the Europa League earlier in the week and a starting spot in the league match against Sunderland the weekend prior. But a then 17 year-old should never be looked to as a key member of the squad, no matter his talent or potential. Daniel Sturridge and Coutinho’s arrival is exactly what was needed to offer Sterling a necessary breather.
We run the risk of throwing too much on the young shoulders of players like Sterling, who has already been called up to Roy Hodgson’s England squad. It shouldn’t make a difference how impressive he’s been this season, players of Sterling’s age should be kept well away from the senior England team and offered vital education in the youth teams.
It’s positive, then, that Sterling has seen most of his Premier League action from the bench in recent weeks, with his last start coming in the 2-1 loss against Manchester United. Yes the player needs a rest, but Rodgers should be more than aware that Sterling shouldn’t carry an equal load to that of Luis Suarez or Steven Gerrard. He’s got the pace to frighten opposition defences, he’s scored twice and assisted in two others, and he now has the contract that raises his status to established first-team player. However, even at 18, 22 league appearances (19 of which have been starts) is a surprising trend. With fresh additions to the squad, hopefully that trend will come to an end between now and the end of the season.
Sterling may be the brightest youngster to come out of the Liverpool youth system since Gerrard, although that would be an unnecessary comparison at this stage. We still don’t know what the player will look like on the pitch at 20 or 23. There’s the fearlessness of youth about his game too, almost as if he was thrown into a world previously unbeknown to him and told to play his natural game. For much of the first half of the campaign, we’ve seen exactly that.
It was that confidence, coupled with the poor displays from others, which forced him into the limelight. Sterling is one of a few teenagers in the Premier League who are making names for themselves up in the dizzying heights of England’s elite, and you certainly can’t say he doesn’t merit the position he’s currently in. He’s shown how well he can work with a star name like Suarez in the attack, and that will go a long way in strengthening his confidence to play in high-pressure games in the near future.
But his development and the progress of Liverpool this season should be viewed as two separate cases. One day, with him tied down to the club, he may be a star at Anfield and he may attract attention in the same way that other quick forwards are currently doing. However, keeping the player grounded and on course to fulfil his potential remains the priority; not throwing him into a season and racking up close to 50 appearances, as we’ve seen with other youngsters in the past.
Sterling is deserving of a break, yes, but you feel that the options available to Rodgers now has given him freedom to provide the youngster with a necessary rest at this stage of the season. Liverpool will want to ensure the player remains grounded and not swept away with the rising expectation. Keeping him out of the starting XI for a few weeks will ensure there are no more logs thrown onto the fire.