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.