If you didn’t know it already, Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling is a player to watch.
The 17-year-old arrived at Anfield with a massive reputation, moving to Merseyside from QPR for a reported £600,000 in February 2010. That figure could rise to £5 million depending on appearances for club and country.
Since the move, Sterling has shown glimpses of his senior ability on pre-season tours, featuring under Roy Hodgson in August 2010 and again the following year under Kenny Dalglish.
Despite impressing against Borussia Monchengladback and Valerenga respectively, a competitive call to action is yet to come the teenager’s way.
That shouldn’t be the case for much longer though, if last night’s performance in the 1-0 NextGen Series quarter-final defeat to Tottenham Hotspur is anything to go by.
The England youth international was the stand-out performer at White Hart Lane, outshining highly-rated Spurs striker Souleymane Coulibaly on a night when little went the way of the Ivorian forward on home turf.
Whilst the result was a negative for the Reds, the performance of note came from either side came via Sterling, who showed raw speed, quick feet, close control and, most importantly, an end product. He was unfortunate to see his forward colleagues unable to take advantage, whilst a super second-half save from Jonathan Miles denied Sterling his own equaliser in the contest.
In its inaugural year, the NextGen was set up to help players showcase their ability against other top youth sides across Europe. The U19 tournament is billed as a stepping-stone for juniors to show their ready to make the move up in class to professional football.
And, if the competition is true to its word, then Sterling will be the man to watch in coming years. But, on yesterday’s performance in north London, it should be sooner.
In a 4-3-3 formation, which is currently employed by ‘King Kenny’ at Anfield in particular, Sterling has the ability to play on either flank, although appears more natural on the left. As is the modern trend, he threatens to cut-inside and shoot as much as heading for the by-line.
Of the attackers at the Scottish manager’s disposal, Luis Suarez, Maxi Rodriguez, Dirk Kuyt, Stewart Downing and Craig Bellamy have the ability to play in the wide areas.
Playing Sterling ahead of any of these players would be classed as a gamble, but Dalglish’s policy of playing senior first team members in the League Cup has limited the opportunities for young players. If they are to get their chance, then the league seems to be just as realistic an option.
Productivity has been Downing’s biggest problem this season, whilst Maxi has been used in more of a central role thus far. Suarez is currently suspended, whilst Bellamy and Kuyt have hit fine form for the Reds.
Whilst Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey have been given opportunities to shine, it appears that only an injury crisis would lead to Sterling getting a chance – as was the case for Jack Robinson and John Flanagan last season.
Both impressed in the sink-or-swim environment of top-flight domestic football, but have since fallen down the pecking order. Indeed, Flanagan played in the left back position for the U19s last night.
A pessimist would argue that, at 17, Sterling simply isn’t ready.
I would strongly disagree with this, highlighting his form for both the youth and reserve teams in that argument. The fact that West Ham, Bolton and Swansea were all keen in loan moves last month suggests that they also think the step-up won’t be a problem.
Dalglish doesn’t need people telling him what to do, and his work at Liverpool since replacing Hodgson has been nothing short of miraculous.
But, with Liverpool’s tradition of bringing players through one of the best academies in the world, this could be another potential coup for both club and country.
Using Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as an example, the teenager got his senior chance in the Championship, impressed at Southampton and was sold to Arsenal. Arsene Wenger has, in-turn, given the England youth international a chance to shine at the Emirates. Had he already been with the Gunners, he may not have got his chance.
That’s a concern over Sterling’s progress, and if Dalglish doesn’t think a first XI appearance is a risk worth taking, then surely a loan move away from Anfield would better serve the teenager’s development.
Does that mean Sterling is in the club’s first team plans? One can only hope that reserve team boss Rodolfo Borrell, who oversaw the rise of several star players at Barcelona, has issued a glowing reference back to his superior.
After yesterday’s performance, he could do little else.
Either way, Sterling's future is very bright, providing huge optimism for both club and country. Should his great form continue, Dalglish will only be able to resist the call for so long.
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