Okay Liverpool fans, this year you really should bar yourselves from making any Christmas wishes as that would be considered immoderate greed which in itself is a sin. This year you have already received the best gift possible, of Raheem Sterling signing a long term contract with Liverpool, which will witness his meager £2,000-per week salary escalate to £30,000-per-week. This was after a series of hard negotiations, during which time all the fans and the prospective buyers of the player were anxious with their last breath. Sterling ducked interests from clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United to stay where he joined in February, 2010 and a visibly joyful Brendan Rodgers stated that there is a lot of development and a lot of nurturing to go yet. But the natural hullabaloo around the signing of Sterling prompted us to take a deeper look at his prospects in Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers and just why Liverpool seem to think that they have scored a winner in retaining his services.
To understand the importance of Sterling into this Liverpool side we need to decipher the footballing philosophy of Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers and the tactics used by him throughout his career. Let us first elucidate on the style of play adapted by Rodgers during his time at Swansea, a period in his life which gave him the recognition of a master tactician and provided him with the giant leap into the “big manager’s club”.
At Swansea, he had two wide forwards, Dyer and Sinclair, who were not typically wingers because they did not drop back to help in the defence much, but whose primary job was to provide crosses to Graham, which they did with perfection. On the other hand, Graham was a typical English centre-forward, shy of keeping the possession of the ball for too long and was thus assigned with the job of making a neat finish. It was primarily this attacking set-up which helped Swansea to finish eleventh in the league and put the ball behind the net 44 times.
When Rodgers joined Liverpool at the beginning of the 2012-13 season, the general expectations of the fans arose by the way he conducted himself and a sense of optimism grasped over Anfield. During the first match of the season against West Brom it was quite evident that Rodgers has opted for the tiki-taka style of play at Liverpool, not the tiki-taka employed by Barcelona, which involves the centre-forward dropping into midfield and the two wide forwards moving in to close the gap and which involves the players to get arranged in a triangular formation playing a number of square passes between themselves, before finally heading for the opposition’s penalty box, made so effective by the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and a certain Messi, but a tiki-taka style applied at the international level by Vincent Del Bosque’s Spain. Spain does not make their centre-forward to move as deep as Messi, but instead let their wide forward to move toward the goal, providing ground crosses and smart passes to the number 9 who is left with the job to make an accurate finish and put the ball behind the bar. This type of a tactic does not need as innovative a player as Messi, nor does it restrain the centre forward to drop back to a certain extent and then make use of his dribbling acumen to get past the final line of defence. With Suarez and Borini as the striking options, who are not typical enormous number 9 strikers like Falcao or Ibrahimovic, this style was perfectly suited for Liverpool.
Therefore, it now brings to the second part of the puzzle. What is the exclusivity of Sterling that makes him such an asset to this side and his committing future with the club such a big event? For this we need to shed some light on the requirement of the Spanish approach of the game. The three most important demands of this style are a wide left forward, wide right forward, both the players being extremely agile with the ball, with great ground-crossing ability and capability to rip open the defence and a false 9 with exceptional finishing touch and a shooting quality to score from even outside the box. While Suarez is the general choice for the false 9 position, for the other two slots the contenders are Suso, Shelvey, Enrique and of course our man Sterling.
While Suso and Enrique have been primarily operating from the wide left-forward position, Sterling has shown his capabilities on both the sides of the striker and has been deployed in right as well as left wide forward positions so far this season. Upto November he was primarily being utilised as an attacking option down the left flank of the pitch with Handerson, Suso and Enrique handling the responsibilities from the right side. The match against Reading was his pick of the lot, where he scored the match winning goal and successfully penetrated the defence from the left sides. It can be seen here very well that although he mainly played as a wide left-forward, his ball possession at the centre of the pitch was awesome for anyone whose primary role was to assist the main striker in his quest for goal.“Raheem Sterling Action Heat Map against Reading”
From mid-November, with Jose Enrique being the first choice for the left side of Suarez, Sterling was asked to lead the attack from the right. Shelvey was brought down a bit further in the midfield ahead of Allen to play a crucial linking role, partnering Gerrrard on the left side. This became the standard Liverpool formation from then on and he now seems to have adjusted quite well in his new position. Just taking a glance at the number of passes successfully completed by Sterling during the game against Southampton, a crystal clear idea can be made about his penetration into the box and his knack of short passes which vastly helps a player like Suarez, who even though creative, is not brilliant in the aerial department.Sterling’s passes against Southampton
This remarkable goal-ward movement by Sterling is made possible by his short frame and excellent agility, combined with his blistering speed with the ball, which makes him a very handy player against defenders with much more physical capacity, unlike someone like Suso, whose efficiency is greatly hampered against a team as physically competent as Stoke. Being part of a Liverpool side under Rodgers should vastly improve his shooting ability and his sense of the goal.
Although the flower has just blossomed and is far away from casting everyone under its blissful aroma, but if the morning shows the day, we surely have a lot to look forward to in the future.