It’s about 90 degrees in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Raheem Sterling is drenched in sweat. He’s exhausted from the second of two training sessions, and at the age of 17, he is on the verge of breaking through to Liverpool’s first team on a regular basis. Supporters are excited about what the pacey winger can offer the squad, and Sterling was able to meet the media in a confident way. He spoke about learning from Stewart Downing and benefitting from Brendan Rodgers’ ability to deal with the younger players in the squad. Sterling started for the Reds in their US Tour match at Fenway Park, and with just three Premier League appearances under his belt at the time, the Queens Park Rangers product was an up-and-coming star.
Like so many supposed-to-be future England youngsters before him, Sterling was under an enormous amount of pressure, and since, the now 20-year-old winger has made himself a fixture in Liverpool’s starting XI. Sometimes that has come as a speedy winger, at the tip of the diamond, or in a free-flowing counter-attacking system in which positions changed as fast as Sterling’s bursts into the box. Now, the England international is featuring as a forward.
It’s tempting to label Sterling as a false nine, because he is not known to us as a striker, but that’s a really specific role that one should be careful assigning. Against Manchester United, the Reds lined up a system that could be broadly labeled as a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1. Sterling was the focal point of the attack and was flanked by Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho, who pinched inside to the support their teammate.
The effect was Sterling using his pace to get behind United’s defense on a few occasions, most notably here.
Liverpool’s attack looked the best it had in a few weeks after a few matches of stagnant football. Sterling is a different beast than Rickie Lambert, Fabio Borini, and Mario Balotelli, though, because he uses his speed more often. In the second half, Sterling took a reserved role and Balotelli was the furthest man forward, while the England man stayed in an advanced position. The introduction of the Italian seemed to limit Sterling’s movement, because Balotelli was the one going in behind.
On Wednesday, Rodgers left Balotelli out and used a similar system against Bournemouth in the Capital One Cup. Again, Sterling was up front and supported by Lallana and Coutinho.
It seems that this system is going to be favored by Rodgers until Daniel Sturridge returns, so it’s important to evaluate if Sterling is capable of producing in this role.
The first question we have to ask ourselves is can Sterling hold up play and involve other players in a more dynamic way than his competition. While the sample is limited to the from the Bournemouth match, Sterling showed that he is an electric option as the team’s forward.
In the fifth minute, he is able to hold play up and get his two supporting attackers involved.
Even though Sterling is just 5-foot-7 and a bit thin, we know he can use his body well when he wants, which is something all undersized players have to do at any level.
Here are a couple of clips to highlight is strength from a preseason match against Borussia Dortmund.
In the second one, he does very well to hold off the defender with a low center of gravity.
So now that we know he is strong enough and can hold up play to combine with his teammates, the next step is his forward and diagonal movements.
Sterling is constantly looking to breach the back four, even when it is unrealistic to do so, but this is something he is going to learn overtime while playing in this role.
In the eighth minute of the match, Coutinho gets a bit of space in the midfield, and Sterling calls for a long ball. You can see him on the right side of the GIF, pointing ahead of the shoulder of the right-sided center-back.
But the ball Sterling wants isn’t the ball Liverpool is going to play in possession. Unless it’s on the counter, the Reds rarely play long balls forward or rush play, because Rodgers wants the team to be patient to score goals like the one below, which had a 52-pass buildup.
Sterling does well to participate in the construction towards this goal. He has the ability to turn and pick his head up to find players to link up with in the middle of the pitch. Then, he knows that his next job is to get forward after distributing the ball, which he does, and his movement into the box leads to his goal.
Now if you look back at the GIF from the eighth minute, you can see that Sterling seems to jerk his body backwards as if to realize that this is one of the times when he is supposed to be checking to the ball instead of breaking into the channels. The same happens below.
He points forward again and wants Jordan Henderson to play an almost impossible ball between the center backs with the outside of his right foot. It’s a good idea from Sterling and it most likely stems from his desire to make runs past defenders, but he will have to learn to hold his runs a little bit.
Above is an example of that, but in a different circumstance. Sterling dashes along with Coutinho, who is making a run to the byline and looking to shoot or slide the ball into the center. The best strikers are able to hold their runs up and know how to manipulate pockets of space inside the box.
As Sterling keeps going, he creates a tougher angle for Coutinho to find him, and you just think that perhaps if Sterling held his run a little bit, the Brazilian would have been able to find his teammate at the top of the penalty box.
This is just an observation of Sterling and something he’ll pick up on over time.
Obviously, he and Diego Costa, who is one of the top strikers in world at the moment, are two very different players, but if you look into how Costa uses space in the box, that’s something Sterling can learn from. An example of that comes from Costa’s first Premier League goal, which came against Burnley. He doesn’t keep going to goal, because he realizes that he has space and that perhaps if he holds back a little bit, he becomes a better option for the cross. He also gives himself the chance to clean up some garbage, which he does.
If Sterling continues to play up top and he gets good instruction in training, this is something he should be able to pick up – not necessarily to the extent of Costa, but it should benefit his positioning.
Until then, running is going to be his game and it’s encouraging to see that he’s eager to work hard to get the ball, because his runs are going to help him and his teammates. Below, watch how his run forces the Bournemouth back four to drop back.
It’s another good run from Sterling and the England man could be the way forward for Liverpool’s striking problems until Sturridge returns.
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