Six games into the new domestic season and Liverpool are in need of some reinvention.
Indeed, as the Reds linger at 14th in the Premier League table with just seven points, it feels almost as if Liverpool have lost two of their most talismanic entities from last season – Barcelona-bound Luis Suarez, and club captain Steven Gerrard.
The retired England skipper is certainly present in mind and body, but his quarter-back role at the base of midfield hasn’t evolved from last season. Premier League opposition are conjuring strategies to freeze the midfielder out of games; West Ham and Aston Villa both adopted the same ploy in recent victories over Liverpool, utilising Stewart Downing and Gabby Agbonlahor respectively to man-mark Gerrard in possession, before attacking the space behind him on the counter.
Of course, that hardly bodes the end of Gerrard’s illustrious Liverpool career, but now 34 years of age, for the sake of longevity, the emphasis must naturally shift away from the Anfield icon sooner rather than later.
Likewise, Brendan Rodgers’ summer signings are struggling to fill the void left behind by Luis Suarez. Mario Balotelli has never been a prolific goal scorer – he’s yet to reach twenty goals in any of his seven seasons as a senior player – and looks unlikely to fire the Reds to another 100-goal Premier League campaign this year.
Arguably a more worrying trend, Suarez set the tone for Liverpool last season. Without him, the intensity both with and without the ball has significantly waned. The Reds need a new talisman; a spiritual leader of similar emotive qualities to Suarez; a fresh focal point that Premier League sides aren’t already prepared for.
The transfer market is the obvious answer but there’s also one closer to home – Liverpool’s teenage sensation Raheem Sterling. Is it time Brendan Rodgers starts building more specifically around this England prodigy?
The obvious concern will be centring an entire starting XI around a player so young. The Liverpool gaffer has already stressed fears of fatiguing his young star and causing serious injury, opting to exclude him from the starting line-up amid the Reds’ 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa. There’s a clear illogic in structuring a team for the benefit of a player who will be rested more frequently than the majority of his team-mates.
Yet, actions speak louder than words and statistics show that Sterling has already completed more minutes on the pitch than he did at this time last season. Furthermore, the 19 year-old is unquestionably Liverpool’s most potent entity amid Suarez’ departure and Daniel Sturridge’s injury absence, with three goals and one assist in six Premier League outings already this season. Likewise, his 2.3 key passes and 3 dribbles per match rank 11th and 3rd respectively throughout the top flight.
Indeed, if you’re of the opinion that leading roles must be earned rather than gifted, Sterling is already upon the periphery of deserving such status. Whilst the rest of the Reds squad seem lost without Suarez’ leadership, the England international remains one of a rare few prepared to take the game to the opposition in the final third.
Where he’s allowed to impact from, however, remains the intrinsic difference; Rodgers has already utilised Sterling in three different capacities this season, but in my opinion, he’s proved his quality and efficiency to become a permanence at No.10. That role allows him to maraud into space down either flank and maintain a fluid, almost telepathic partnership with Daniel Sturridge.
Further apprehensions will be consistency and pressure; is it right asking a player so young to act as the driving force for a Champions League-quality side on a bi-weekly basis? That places an enormous weight of expectancy on Sterling’s shoulders that admittedly, any 19 year-old would struggle to cope with.
Yet, Sterling has already demonstrated the ability to perform consistently under crippling pressures throughout his short Liverpool career. Since the turn of 2014, no teenager in world football has played a more vital role, in a challenge as prestigious as the Premier League title, at a club as monolithic as Liverpool, than Raheem Sterling. By no coincidence, he was also the only England international to leave the World Cup in Brazil with his reputation enhanced.
Perhaps my hypothesis has come too soon; after all, there is a terrible habit in England, especially amongst the journalist and blogger elite, of exposing young players to intense scrutiny before they’re ready. Failing to live up to the expectations of the press has undoubtedly crippled many-a career. Furthermore, how long would this rebuilding process take? Liverpool’s biggest concern right now is preserving their Champions League status, not developing the long-term structure of the first team.
But Sterling’s world-class potential is impossible to deny. He’s now allegedly a Real Madrid transfer target, and the La Liga side’s interest can be sourced to the attacker often showing wisdom, composure and decision-making beyond his years. This isn’t ruthless athleticism driving Sterling on, as was the case with a teenage Theo Walcott; it’s a mixture of quality and intelligence, perhaps the only notable remaining flaw being, on occasion, end product.
Those are fantastic traits to start with, but admittedly, the timing feels slightly askew. Rodgers won’t be able to make any signings that compliment Sterling specifically until next summer and between now and then, Liverpool could find themselves in a multitude of unimaginable scenarios.
Yet, when the time comes for Steven Gerrard to accept a reduced role, Liverpool already possess a long-term successor. He may not be of the same mould as the former England skipper, but in Raheem Sterling, the Reds have a player equally as passionate, exciting and talented. If Rodgers isn’t to start building around the teenage attacker now, that inevitable process cannot be far away.
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