Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Credit Boss For Steady Rise

It's the first pre-season friendly of the summer; 56 days of traipsing alone through goalpost-ridden parks with only a fold-out fixture list for shelter from the drizzle, and 56 nights of falling asleep to the season review DVD, are gone in an instant, replaced by new rays of hope and optimism in the Preston sunshine.

Midway through the second half, one of the most talented and exhilarating young footballers in the country times a run to perfection, breezes round the goalkeeper and nonchalantly tucks the ball home as if it was, and will be, an everyday occurrence.

Raheem Sterling is still a teenager, tremendously gifted, and Liverpool Football Club's for the long-term after signing a new contract last December. He's back with renewed hunger and a clean bill of health after an extended rest from his induction to the physical and psychological rigours of Barclays Premier League football. He is ready.

Permission to get preposterously and disproportionately over-excited? It's a bit late for that. Marquee signings provide a buzz, but there is an additional dose of pride when a special talent makes the breakthrough from the Academy to Melwood. We don't just marvel at his footballing promise, we deeply root for the lad too, which makes every progression a thrill.

While Sterling has been warming up for the new campaign with a goal at Preston, and another in Jakarta, most eyes seems to have been on another young English talent, Wilfried Zaha, who by all accounts has hit the ground running in pre-season for Manchester United.

Zaha's decision to represent England last year when he lined up alongside Sterling for their debuts, coupled with a £15 million move to the champions in January, came with a guarantee of unrivalled attention during what could be a pivotal season for his new club.

He may not have played a Premier League match in his life, but the comparisons will be to both the league and United's past and present elite, and conclusions relating to the size of his fee and the extent of the hype will be drawn and re-drawn each week.

Meanwhile, Sterling was not even the most talked-about young Englishman on the pitch at Preston, with Jordon Ibe rightly taking some plaudits, building on his strong showing against QPR in May with a crisp strike in the first half, and continuing to impress Reds fans thereafter during the overseas tour. The future looks bright.

However, the country-wide reaction, or lack of, to Sterling's latest displays of speed and skill matched the pleasantly serene nature of Liverpool's start to pre-season, when the goals flowed with ease at Deepdale despite inevitable rust, a few new faces and the absence of some experienced stars.

This is all no accident, and Brendan Rodgers must take a wealth of credit. It is easy to talk vaguely about good man-managers, or praise a coach for privately 'putting his arm round' a young player, but Rodgers made a series of brave calls last season regarding Sterling's selection, and all without the choice of disguising them from the closely watching media and fans.

These didn't just preserve Sterling's physical and mental wellbeing, but have since allowed him to operate under a seemingly decreasing intensity of external attention, particularly considering his nationality. We may all be about to witness some substantial benefits.

If Rodgers was brave for ushering Sterling into the limelight with a start against then-champions Manchester City for the first home game of last season, then the move to gradually withdraw him from the first team after Christmas showed gargantuan guts. Sterling may be a rookie who plays a high-risk game of adventurous dribbles, while quick feet caused him to spend much of his early matches being up-ended by men 10 years his senior, but he quickly became integral rather than merely impactful during the early months of 2012-13.

While there were plenty of forays into the final third, defenders twitching as he evaded them one way or another, there was also an intriguing level of street-wise guile to his play, and no little physicality, as LFC new-boy Kolo Toure will testify. Sterling showed against the Ivorian last August that he can hold the ball up and tussle with bigger, stronger opponents, and make smart choices rather than reach for the box of tricks every time.

He was catching the statistician's eye too, completing around 85 per cent of his passes in 24 matches, a fine effort for a winger and a better rate than Gareth Bale (78.5), Antonio Valencia (84.1), James Milner (77.4) and Theo Walcott (83.1), while his dribbling figures don't suffer by comparison with these more established wide men.

Moreover, while Sterling will continue to make his name as a winger and occasional front-man, he showed an unerring ability to drift in-field and dictate play when needed. A few experimental wanderings against Southampton were followed by a crucial relocation to the middle against West Ham at Upton Park, a breakthrough win for Rodgers' men last December.

With the Reds 2-1 down, Sterling moved in from the left and, undeterred by West Ham's busy, boisterous midfield, eventually linked the play that produced Joe Cole's equaliser, inspiring a comeback and the Reds' first back-to-back victories of the season. There was a sense that Rodgers' philosophy was beginning to become integrated among the squad at this point, and that the promise of some early performances was about to translate into results at the turn of the year. Sterling, by this time a full international and becoming the focus of many a 'Match of the Day' reel, signed a new contract and was close to indispensable.

This wasn't just a young kid coming off the bench to give the crowd a brief treat, but a player who arguably, alongside Luis Suarez, was keeping Liverpool's head above water while the club was adjusting to a period of rapid, wholesale change. Sterling had repaid the faith shown in him ahead of schedule, and Rodgers was left with a dilemma, less than six months into one of the most high-pressure jobs in football.

More experienced managers have stuck with their young stars in the face of the growing evidence of the infamous but genuine 'burnout' threat, so widely discussed in the English game at present. At 18, Jack Wilshere returned to Arsenal from a loan spell at Bolton, and with the London club desperate for silverware and to remain in the top four, he played 49 matches in all competitions and consequently, not a single match the following year. Question marks remained over his fitness, but he still played 25 league games last season, one more than Sterling.

While some may claim the young man 'went off the boil' in the new year, Sterling made 16 90-minute appearances before Christmas, and not a single one thereafter. Despite proving to be fearless against the best teams in the early weeks of the season, he was an unused substitute in games against Manchester City, Arsenal and Spurs in the spring, with the experience of Stewart Downing preferred.

He was drip-fed until March 31, and after coming on in the win at Villa Park, he was given the remainder of the season off to recover and nurse a niggling thigh injury. To the casual eye, his form may have dipped slightly, but in reality, this was a youngster approaching the limit, being treated with necessary care. He may have gone on to dazzle until May, but Rodgers was not going to allow one of his most promising players to hit the wall and learn a lesson to detrimental effect, like an increasing amount of young players have.

His de-selection was vindicated by a steady upturn in results, as January signings Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge added new dimensions at the sharp end, with the resurgent Jordan Henderson and Downing providing renewed depth in midfield and out wide. However, the biggest benefit could materialise in the coming years, when Sterling is able to progress unimpeded by injuries sustained by over-playing in his teenage years, while being conditioned mentally by a gradual exposure to the limelight of life as a top-flight English footballer.

With most of the attention being reserved for Zaha, Sterling, more experienced at the top level, is now a player who has had a taste of being a first-team regular at Liverpool, but also had to endure time on the sidelines to reflect and recuperate, before footballing fates could enforce that upon him. Rodgers, although desperate to prove himself as early as possible in the most unforgiving of roles, took these decisions in spite of the fact that Sterling had been one of the better players in a team striving for better results at that time.

There is always an element of luck needed in the development of every young player, no matter how talented. But by assessing the risks and standing up to the public pressures in a manner that not all top-class managers would have, Rodgers has selflessly given Liverpool's most gifted graduate of recent years an even stronger chance of becoming a Kop idol in those to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Have your say...