South African football reporter, Melissa Reddy, analyses how Raheem Sterling has gone from strength to strength for Liverpool this season in a special, in-depth feature...
Raheem Sterling's performances over the past two-and-a-half months have provided a perfect balance between attacking ambition and defensive discipline. But the most exciting aspect of the 19-year-old's execution is the reality that his potential is far from peaked.
When Liverpool welcomed Oldham Athletic to Anfield in early January, there was worldwide outrage at the absence of a live broadcast of the FA Cup battle. The Reds had bulldozed 25 goals in their previous seven games at home, and supporters were loathe to miss what they imagined would be another humbling of the opposition in L4.
But the attacking swagger that was scripted against the League One side had to be replaced with a combination of resilience and resolve as Brendan Rodgers' men edged a game the manager admitted 'was always in the balance'. What fans were robbed off in that 2-0 third-round victory was witnessing Sterling announce himself as much more than just a pacey outlet.
In a first half where Oldham were determined to frustrate and foil the Reds, the winger was the focal point of Liverpool's response. He was dynamic going forward, and was tireless in the opposite direction as he constantly closed down the visitors. It was the opening act to Sterling's recent performances, which has rightfully sparked calls for him to make England's World Cup squad.
When Liverpool's break did finally come against Oldham on 55 minutes, it was poetic justice that Iago Aspas' half-volley - his first goal for the club, was a product of the winger's artistry down the right. The 19-year-old, faced with three markers blocking his path to the posts, teased the first one before not giving his other opponents a chance to react; delivering a perfect ball which evaded their rearguard and bounced up beautifully for the striker to bury.
Sterling was unlucky not to claim a second crisp assist moments later. Once again, despite being carefully watched on the right of the box, he turned his defender inside-out and dished up another clever cross for Aspas; the Spaniard's header cannoning off the woodwork.
With nine minutes of normal time remaining, and the visitors fighting for a way back into the encounter, Daniel Agger had to be replaced due to injury, forcing the Reds into a defensive shuffle as all three permitted substitutions were already exercised.
Sterling shifted to right-back, and in the next move of the match, swarmed down his flank, and into the box with James Tarkowski deflecting the England international's shot into his own net. Liverpool may have been down to 10-men, but it didn't show with Sterling exhibiting the industry of two players.
Rodgers recently stated that it's too easy to applaud and appreciate footballers when their team is cushioned by a comfortable scoreline. Real class also comes to the fore when things are not falling into place, the manager argued, and Sterling's outing against Oldham was a case in point.
His display was a beautiful balance of attacking ambition and defensive discipline - the only thing absent from his inventory was a killer touch in front of goal.
But ahead of that clash, there was already evidence that Sterling's arsenal was being sharpened. He had scored three and assisted three in his previous eight appearances for Liverpool in all competitions, with his finest displays still to come.
In the memorable 4-0 Merseyside derby demolition, Sterling's pressing of Everton was exemplary, once again complementing his pace and persistence to swarm the defence. It was a dynamic burst from the winger which won Liverpool the penalty that could have inflicted further punishment on their neighbours.
Then came the performance of the season - a slaughtering of then league-leaders Arsenal at Anfield, with Sterling securing a brace and unlucky not to have hit a hat-trick. Again, his archive of abilities was illustrated, with analysts noting that apart from his potent forays forward, the flanker looked a lot stronger on and off the ball.
In last week's FA Cup fifth-round fixture at the Emirates, Raheem was rightly voted the Reds' Man of the Match. When the Gunners were at their strongest, it was Sterling who provided protection and direction for Liverpool. That game may have been lost, but another example of Sterling's steely play was gained.
When Steven Gerrard saluted Raheem as 'the toughest' in the squad, it was no hyperbole. The skipper explained to the Liverpool Echo: "I don't go near him in training because if I do, there is only one winner."
The club's head of performance, Glen Driscoll, revealed the same insight to Liverpoolfc.com when asked if Sterling was on a special regime focusing on his physicality.
"Pound for pound Raheem is probably the strongest in the group. So relative to his body weight in a contest with Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, my money would be on 'Razza!' But obviously his incredible strength, power, speed and agility is specific to his position and his job on the pitch," said Driscoll.
"We have a strength day in our training methodology, a football session, not gym session that overloads him in those combat scenarios [take-ons, tackles, ball-shielding]. Perhaps, Raheem's greatest gift though is his aerobic fitness."
Driscoll explained that the teenager possesses the rare ability of extending himself using minimal energy.
"His speed endurance is unrivalled in his position. I said to him last pre-season, I've never seen a winger with quite this gift. He can work and work with very little metabolic cost.
"This is why he is so relentless both defensively tracking the likes of [Bacary] Sagna and [Leighton] Baines, and offensively taking them the other way consistently for the duration of the 90 minutes.
"Raheem has been blessed with all these physical attributes along with his obvious ability."
Gerrard believes the Jamaican-born starlet has more to show in his locker.
"I said to him before we played Everton 'put yourself in the full-back's position - what doesn't he want? He doesn't want you to keep running at him'.
"Raheem was relentless that night. He kept going and going. He gave the Everton full-backs a torrid afternoon and he did it to Arsenal.
"Now he has to do it every week and get that consistency in his game. If he gets that consistency, he is going to be a frightening talent."
His manager agrees. Rodgers, who bravely handed Sterling his first start in the Premier League against Manchester City when he was just 17, has continuously kept faith with the trickster.
Even in that game back in August 2012, when Raheem was defensively raw and Carlos Tevez twice exploited him in quick succession, the Liverpool boss showed confidence in the attacker by opting to rejig the back four instead of substituting Sterling.
The teen ended that encounter with the admiration of the Argentinean, who gave him his shirt, as well as a warm embrace from Gerrard and the proof that he had a mentor who believed in him.
This time last year, when questioned about the forward's drop in form, Rodgers reminded the media of Sterling's age in relation to the expectations that were placed on him. "This is a kid we're talking about so we have to take a wee step back," said the Liverpool manager.
"What he's done since he stepped onto the pitch against Bayer Leverkusen in a friendly to Manchester City [for his full league bow] as a 17-year-old, I dare you to look around Europe and tell me a 17-year-old who has made such an impact in one of the big leagues. There aren't many.
"It is so mentally and physically draining this league. It hurts experienced professionals and this boy has just stepped up from the Academy and played first-team football and earned a contract off that. We have to nurture that and at times he's got to have that mentality to keep learning."
Rodgers' nous in fostering Sterling's repertoire has paid off for the player and the club. Like Liverpool's captain, the gaffer also pointed to the potential the prodigy is yet to fulfill. "Technically he is getting better. He realises you have to be right every day of your life, not just every game."
If he's already making light work of top-four contenders (see his showings against Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal), and has Gerrard avoiding him in training without yet hitting top gear, opponents should be perturbed by his inevitable progress.
Reds supporters, meanwhile, should take to their seats and prepare standing ovations; there's still many more episodes to air in the Sterling show.
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