For Liverpool fans he was a bright spark of possibility and hope at the beginning of what looked to be a dismal season. Yet as the season has progressed and
Liverpool have gotten stronger, Sterling seems to be disappearing somewhat. It is true that he is young and the strengthening in January now puts less of a strain on Rodgers selection meaning he can attempt to avoid the terrifying burnout effect, but his performances, when he does make the pitch, haven’t been getting the plaudits they once did. I’m going to analyse Sterling, in comparison with fellow wingers, using Gareth Bale as a benchmark to find his level, and with fellow British players to see how he ranks in the England setup.
My first worry with Sterling as a winger is the exact reason he gained so much critical acclaim earlier in the season. Pundits and fans alike would praise his ability to find a pass. ‘He knows when to release the ball’ was the phrase often used. This is reflected in his stats, Sterling completes an impressive 85% of his passes, a high stat for wingers, Bale only completes 79% of his passing. My worry however is that this is disguising a fear or an inability to beat the defender, or worse, the system he plays in devalues wing play, and thus his development will be stunted.
Now before the Rodgers and Barca purists argue with me about the merits of inverted wingers and playing off the forwards I don’t believe every winger must get to the byline and whip in a cross, but diversity and adaptability is valuable in football and even if you play as an inverted winger it is useful to have such options in the locker. For me, knowing when to let go of the ball is handy for a winger, but not to the detriment of being able to take on the defender. The natural eye for the take-on should come first and the rest can be ironed out by a manager. However, this does not seem to be the case with Sterling. He has completed 46 dribbles this season, only one less that Bale, and perhaps surprisingly, he has created 2 more chances that Bale from open play with 2 assists to Bale’s 1. They have also created the same number of clear-cut chances with 5.
One area that Sterling could be neglecting in his current development is his crossing ability, having only completed 8 crosses while Bale has completes a staggering 42. This is down to the different styles of play that Spurs and Liverpool employ, Bale is actively encouraged to find the cross and hit areas, whereas Sterling is told to find the man.
This is a simple view of the two styles yet a vital difference between the two. Unsurprisingly then Sterling is more accurate in his final third passes with 81% to Bale’s 71%, completing 100 more passes with 403. This is a double-edged sword in that although Sterling finds his man more often, it also means that Bale is much more effective in creating chances. This is directly because the Tottenham’s style of play which allows Bale to take more chances to try and create or score a goal.
Sterling, however, seems at times too selfless. He takes a lower than average number of shots for a winger, he takes one every 75 minutes, compared to Bale, who has one every 24 minutes, an average for a winger is closer to 50 minutes however. And although he has found the net twice so far this season, his shooting boots don’t seem to be tailored for much outside the box. The deft lob against Sunderland and his well placed winner against Reading are both good goals, but neither needed any power. I am yet to see a shot from Sterling which has made me sit up thinking it would be a screamer. He does lack power, both in his shots and as a runner, something Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has in abundance.
It would be fruitless to compare the goalscoring records of Bale since he will dwarf many players in that aspect due to his rich form this season, however looking more closely at the possession stats reveals something worrying for Liverpool fans. Sterling has given the ball away more often than Bale, which in itself is unsurprising since he attempts more passes and goes hand in hand with the positive 85% completion rate, yet he has also been dispossessed twice as many times as the Welshman. This stat shows how often a player is tackled, either while they are attempting a dribble, or have been caught in possession. Sterling has lost the ball 64 times this season. Bale has lost it 32 times and in comparison Anthony Pilkington of Norwich has only lost it 26 times over a similar period. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain his main competition for a future England spot, has only been dispossessed 20 times, albeit in half the minutes yet it still compares favourably.
My worry about Sterling is that he is either too slight and being forced off the ball too easily, or he his more adapt at the passing game than the wing play. If the former is the case, it should be natural in his development and growth that those figures will fall, however if it is the latter then there is a much bigger problem, especially since he won’t be in a team where his wing play will develop as rapidly (assuming Rodgers stays around). This could leave him behind in the England pecking order partially due to the style his team plays, unless England adopts something similar, which seems unlikely at the moment.
It is easy to get caught in the hype machine and think that potential equals ability, but it doesn’t, it is an investment that may or may not come off. Currently he does not have the ability to be the best all round winger in the league. With the Ox and now Wilfred Zaha arriving on the scene and established forwards such as Walcott, Welbeck and Sturridge, Sterling has plenty of competition, especially if Young can stay fit consistently, however, as the youngest he has a lot of time to develop. With progress and more boldness in his offensive play he could easily be an England star of the future, however he still has a lot of growing up to do.
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