No teenager on the planet comes close to the England and Liverpool man at this moment in time…
Towards the end of last season, respected Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport compiled a list of the 60 best teenagers in football.
Liverpool and England’s wonderkid Raheem Sterling was ranked fifth, behind Gerardo Deulofeu (now on loan at Sevilla), Marquinhos (sitting on the bench at PSG), Lucas Piazon (now on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt) and Adnan Januzaj (now on the bench at Man United).
In fact, of the five, only young Belgian Januzaj is still in his teens – with Piazon, Deulofeu and Marquinhos having already turned 20.
If Gazzetta dello Sport were to write this list today, we reckon it’s pretty much implausible that these four teenagers ranked above Sterling in March would get anywhere near the 19-year-old.
That’s how far he’s come in such a short space of time.
Now, Sterling is already arguably both his club and his country’s most important player, which considering his age, is nothing short of extraordinary.
“He is such a weapon for England and Liverpool. He is now our best player — aged 19 — and defenders are frightened of him,” pundit and former international Jamie Redknapp cooed after Sterling’s performance against Switzerland for England.
Arsenal legend Martin Keown loudly agrees.
“It’s official, Raheem Sterling is England’s best player. He started with a reputation as a dribbler, but his speed, link-up play and movement make him such a threat,” he said, after Sterling walked off the Wembley turf with a Man of the Match award last week following a friendly versus Norway.
So what makes him so special? Or has the English media simply gone into hyperbolic overdrive after some promising performances from an exciting young talent?
The truth is, in this instance – the praise is completely justified.
Sterling possesses all the physical, technical and mental attributes needed to become a phenomenal modern day attacker.
Those who rarely watch him state his unbelievable speed as his main asset, but while it is indeed devastating, that does a disservice to his game intelligence, power and skill.
Sterling’s speed though is what initially frightens defenders, and that’s why, until March last season, he was predominantly used on the wing…
From here, he could beat his man on the outside, or look to cut inside and link up with midfielders, before moving back to the touchline to drag the opposition fullbacks out.
For a teenager, he was exceptional in this position, but since his manager Brendan Rodgers decided to field him centrally at the tip of a diamond, he’s moved onto another level completely.
Now, Sterling is playmaker, runner, goalscorer and creator – all rolled into one pocket-sized dynamo.
By playing in a modern variation of the no.10 role, Sterling can find space from which to tear teams apart. His movement and positioning is fantastically clever. Rarely does he sprint when he doesn’t need to – and instead – seems to have the knack of simply knowing where to position himself when his side are either in, or out of possession. His teammates’ first instinct is to pass him the ball, and crowds are starting to collectively rise when the diminutive wonderkid receives it.
When either Liverpool or England win back possession, Sterling is at his most dangerous. His ball control is practically perfect, meaning midfielders or defenders can zip him passes quickly, and know it will be taken under control.
The worst thing opponents can do is mark the youngster too tightly, as he’ll turn on a sixpence and begin his dribble through the middle of the park – leaving them in his wake because of his ability to run with the ball faster than they can run without it.
Only a handful of players on the planet can do this, and to be in the company of Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben before your 20th birthday is jaw-dropping.
Interestingly, Sterling was originally moved central to accommodate a strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, and while the duo blossomed, the primary long-term benefit of Rodgers’ decision was discovering Sterling’s best position.
Because Sterling runs with the ball so effortlessly, he draws fouls – which enables his team to rearrange themselves when in trouble, or deliver offensive set-pieces into the opposition box. Sterling’s small, but his strength is underrated. Like all great players, he has the ability to get himself between the defender and the ball, from where he usually wriggles out of tight spaces and recycles possession.
He can pass, too. The weight of Sterling’s intricate deliveries are normally excellent, managing to feed his teammate without them having to pause their running stride. The assist to set up Danny Welbeck’s opening goal against the Swiss displayed this perfectly.
Statistically, Sterling’s backing up the claims of potential greatness. He bagged nine Premier League goals last term, and already has two in three this – along with two assists for his country. When Lionel Messi was 19, he scored 14 league goals in a season, while Cristiano Ronaldo only managed five. While these comparisons with football royalty are too early, to be cemented between the two best players in the modern generation when they were 19 is a good place to start…
Sterling isn’t perfect, of course. His finishing needs work, and he occasionally looks to thread an intricate pass instead of backing his ability to beat players. This probably has much to do with his age and the experienced figures he’s looking to play on goal, however, and when he relishes the responsibility of being his teams’ best player, we could see him go on his own a little more. He doesn’t strut with confidence, or look to take matches by the scruff of the neck yet, but this will come with age. Instead, he actually prefers to be subtly but ruthlessly effective – which contradicts the ‘Bad Boy’ image sometimes portrayed by the media.
For now though, football fans should simply enjoy watching the evolution of the most talented player to come through the English ranks since Wayne Rooney.
If he carries on improving at this alarming rate, we’re going to have a potential Ballon D’or winner on our hands…