Raheem Sterling could become the most talented England player of a generation.
He’s the first Englishman to claim Europe’s Golden Boy award since Wayne Rooney a decade ago, and the Manchester United captain’s success since – not to mention that of fellow winners Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Aguero, Toni Kroos and Paul Pogba – tells all about how prestigious and predictive that accolade truly is.
Admittedly, there’s not too much competition for the moniker of alpha male of the younger Three Lions clan currently breaking through. Jack Wilshere’s pedigree is without doubt but persistent injuries and a lack of synergy between his roles at Arsenal and international level have stuttered his progress.
Ross Barkley’s greed in front of goal is yet to prove justifiable and although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is an impressive all-rounder his most defining trait is still awaiting clarity, whilst the likes of Harry Kane, Saido Berahino, Luke Shaw and John Stones still haven’t been truly tested at top level.
[ffc-gal cat=”liverpool” no=”5″]
But in the era of home-grown quotas, that doesn’t really matter. Currently, Premier League sides are obliged to include eight home-grown players in their Premier League registered squads. FA Chairman Greg Dyke wants to increase the number to 12, whilst also changing the criteria to three years of training in England before the age of 18, rather than 21.
So if you’re forced to buy English players, you may as well get the best one. Which is why Manchester City, whose squad has the oldest average age in the Premier League and a significant deficiency of England internationals, are particularly keen on a summer deal for Sterling, with his Anfield departure now seemingly inevitable. It’s clearly a more viable strategy than employing eight Richard Wrights every year.
But at Liverpool’s seemingly immovable valuation of £50million – or for that matter, the Citizens’ latest bid of £35million plus add ons – the wantaway winger still represents an enormous risk. He might be England’s flagship performer for the next decade; but he might be the next Theo Walcott or Shaun Wright-Phillips. Useful players at their peaks, but some way shy of the world-class level once heralded.
If there’s one key trait Sterling lacks, it’s composure in front of goal. Don’t get me wrong, few attacking midfielders have 18 Premier League goals under their belt at the age of 20, and when deployed as an emergency centre-forward by Brendan Rodgers this season the England prodigy bagged three goals and two assists from eleven outings – not bad considering Liverpool’s frankly dire performances during that spell.
Yet goals are the ultimate difference in football; it’s why we put the likes of Eden Hazard behind Lionel Messi and Cristano Ronaldo; it’s why Frank Lampard will be remembered as one of the Premier League’s greatest midfielders; it’s why Gareth Bale’s market value skyrocketed to £87million in the space of a single season.
Composure cannot be taught but it may be acquired, through experience and practice. Yet some players simply aren’t fantastic goal scorers, and right now that’s the biggest question mark lingering over Sterling’s head. Of course, the Liverpool star has plenty of other uses. He’s a fantastic dribbler, a prolific creator, a good athlete and seemingly adaptable to most advanced roles; this season, he’s featured as a wing-back, a winger, a No.10 and as an out-and-out striker.
But at £50million, you need to know what you’re getting – and right now, we don’t know what kind of player Sterling truly is. What’s his best position? Can he score 15 goals a season? Will he shine as brightly in sides that aren’t as underwhelming as Liverpool and England?
Once again, young, English talent is desperately needed at Eastlands and with several first teamers seemingly coming to the end of their cycles – the veterans of the Yaya Toure, Pablo Zabaletta variety – a new focal point to the starting XI is also required. Sterling could become that, but he could also turn out to be a complete disaster – the weight of expectancy that accompanies such lucrative transfer fees has chewed up and spat out better proven, more experienced players before.
And the fact is, City need to get their recruitment spot on this summer. Although the holistic changes many insinuated in March and April now seem relatively unlikely, with both Toure and manager Manuel Pellegrini expected to stay on, making the right signings is absolutely crucial to extend the life span of an ageing starting Xi. Getting the formula wrong might not only waste £50million, but by next summer could claim the Eithad careers of a number of senior players and coaches.
In that sense, it could be Manchester City’s most significant window to date. They’re no longer assembling a side in a trial and error manner; they’re attempting to revitalise one whilst complying with Financial Fair Play regulations. At £50million, Sterling’s the only signing of that price range they can afford without selling.
Suddenly, it seems like the Citizens are putting all their eggs in one £50million basket – that may turn out to have a gigantic hole at the bottom.