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It was only last year that Raheem Sterling burst onto the scene with the Liverpool first team, and it’s only 11 months since he won an England debut after a scintillating start to his Premier League career.
He had the world at his feet: Born in Jamaica and playing in England as a winger, Sterling was quickly compared to Anfield legend John Barnes, and his impressive and confident performances won fans and attracted admirers alike.
But since the turn of the year, with fresh faces arriving and making instant impacts, Sterling has been taken out of the first team for a break and has recently gotten into trouble with the law, making it an underwhelming and unhappy few months for the No. 31.
Aged just 18—he signed his first professional contract in December 2012—Sterling still has an entire career ahead of him and a wonderful opportunity to blossom and grow under the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers.
To make sure he takes his Liverpool career forward, here are five things Raheem Sterling must do.
Put His Focus Back on Football
Just a week ago, Brendan Rodgers issued a public warning to Raheem Sterling over his off-field issues and brushes with the law in 2013, as reported by the Guardian:
He needs to have a clear mind in everything in his life. He needs to stabilize his life, understand the remarkable opportunity he has at one of the biggest clubs in the world and focus everything in on his career. Once he does that and he is clear in his mind, he has no distraction and we can get to the level of performance of the first four or five months of last year.
A big pronouncement, and quite rightly so, given that Rodgers had granted Sterling a break at the turn of year, according to the Telegraph, from fatigue and frequent first-team action so early on in his career.
In late September, a court case against Sterling, where he had been accused of assault by an ex-girlfriend, collapsed due to a weak testimony, according to the Daily Mail. But, having also had assault charges dropped in May earlier this year, he has been in the public eye for all the wrong reasons.
And that needs to change. To get his budding career back on track—and what a track it was—Sterling needs to knuckle down, get his priorities straight and focus back on his football, where he can express himself on the pitch and fulfill his undoubted potential.
It’s not every day you see a 17-year-old start in a Premier League first team against the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea and deliver arguably the best displays on the field.
It’s certainly not every day—no matter what they say about England caps being easier to come by these days—that a youngster is awarded an England cap on the back of two months in the first team, never mind in the Premier League.
And, of course, it’s not every day that a hot prospect receives a glowing endorsement of his potential and nothing but pure praise from Gary Neville, ex-archrival and famously critical TV pundit.
So if we look at it from Sterling’s point of view, perhaps we’d forgive him for feeling pretty good about himself and what he’s accomplished in his short career to date.
But he can’t let that get to his head. Yes, he’s played in the Premier League, in Europe and he’s worn the England shirt, but he needs to stay hungry and focus on achieving everything he possibly can in what ultimately is a short stay at the very top of professional football.
He’s said the right things and now needs to make sure he goes into training with those goals in mind every single day.
Be More Assertive on the Pitch, Even as an Impact Substitute
And now we come to the on-field stuff.
In a thin squad at the beginning of the 2012/13 season, Sterling was one of an impressive trio, along with Andre Wisdom and Suso, to have established themselves in Brendan Rodgers’ first team for the first half of the season.
Getting opportunities to play at least an hour week in, week out will have done his confidence and development a world of good, while the exposure and competition with the England U-21s will also have helped complement that learning experience at the top level.
Since the arrivals of Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and to some extent Iago Aspas, however, Sterling has found first-team minutes harder to come by, and with the exception of the Capital One Cup—a competition from which Liverpool have been eliminated after just their second game—has more often than not been considered as an impact substitute.
Which is a role that allows for less time to impress and less room to work with, but nonetheless is one that Sterling should embrace for the time being: After all, it is to Sterling that Rodgers often looks in the second half, rather than other options off the bench, so the feeling is that the No. 31 still has his manager’s trust in his abilities.
He made a big enough impression last year and continued to do so over this summer’s preseason fixtures, but now with his changed role, he needs to come alive instantly when he arrives on the pitch and deliver that same spark with the same assertiveness and confidence that he personified just 12 months ago.
Develop More Areas of His Game in a Changing Tactical System
It won’t come easy, partly because of the increase in options in the first team and on the bench, but also due to Rodgers’ tweaks to his tactical system this season.
From a 4-3-3 to an aesthetically pleasing 4-2-3-1, Liverpool have further evolved—both out of necessity with the injuries they have suffered and out of choice with their strength in depth in defence—to a 3-4-1-2 system in the 2013/14 campaign.
In this new system, which, considering the fine form of Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho in the back three, appears to suit the Reds down to the hilt, the width is provided by two wing-backs rather than two attackers, and both positions already have incumbents in Glen Johnson (currently injured) and Jose Enrique.
With two central midfielders supporting a No. 10 behind Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, the opportunities for a genuine winger or attacking midfielder to establish himself in the first team are rapidly diminishing—and even that No. 10 role, which has been filled by Victor Moses in recent weeks, is quite clearly destined for Philippe Coutinho when he returns from injury.
So could he reinvent himself as a wing-back to fit into this system or possibly a credible option in the hole? It all depends on whether he can improve on his already impressive defensive work and physical strength, as well as his creativity, passing and crossing.
Going out on loan in January or next summer is a real option for Sterling to get first-team experience at a top-flight club elsewhere without having to wait on the bench in a team currently right in the mix for a top-four spot—he’s good enough to play in the Premier League every week, especially when he’ll be 19 by then—but to fit into Rodgers’ blueprint for the Reds in the long term, adding more facets to his game will only help.
Bide His Time and Be Patient
It’s a cliche, but one that needs repeating: Raheem Sterling needs to be patient.
He will know that this is a Liverpool team that’s vastly different from the setup he so excitingly entered last year, when he was given a chance because of a lack of real depth on the bench. This year, after a fruitful summer, the squad is equipped with talent to fight for a Champions League finish, and certainly their results so far have been encouraging to that end.
So it won’t be easy for Sterling to force his way into the first-team setup, and it won’t be easy for Brendan Rodgers to change a winning team getting results on most weeks.
Rumors of a loan switch in the summer—this one from the Daily Star linked him with a move to West Ham United—may resurface over the next 10 months, and like Suso, Sterling may find himself looking for sustained first-team action at another club.
But since his debut for Rodgers, it’s been nothing but patently clear that his manager has high hopes for him and appreciates the improvement that he’s had in just over a year, so Sterling should take every chance he gets—be it at Anfield or elsewhere for the time being—knowing that he has the right mentor to develop him and help him fulfill his potential.
If he manages to focus on the right things for the sake of his career, we may well see Raheem Sterling develop into the world-class player that his talent suggests he can be.