Well, let's find out.
Raheem Sterling has been involved in 63 league matches for Liverpool, starting with a few sub minutes at the back end of the 2011/12 season. Regularly involved at the start of the following year despite being only 17, his season was a curate's egg, hampered by a thigh injury picked up early on during England U21 duty. The injury was managed, his form wavered and his season was curtailed early. He started 16 matches prior to mid December and only 3 thereafter, his last full game before the year ended. Off field issues were also a factor.
Returning for 2013/14, his involvement was modest until December where a starting role & 3 goals in a month signified good form. From there on he was a regular starter and contributed solidly towards Liverpool's title challenge. Soon enough came the World Cup where he initially usurped Rooney from the centre & drew praise then onwards to a fine start to this current campaign.
So what's he been doing to draw such praise?
1. Goals / Assists / Shots & Dribbles
Initially, he was somewhat shot-shy but dribbled the ball a lot. His rate of key passes was initially comparatively high to subsequent levels. All these things could indicate a young player trying to fit into a team and deferring some respect to senior players.
After this initial period, we can see that two things have been almost constant throughout: his shot rate and his key pass rate, both of whom meander around the 2 per90 mark. But, despite these steady numbers three things are consistently increasing: his shot on target rate, his assist & goal rate and his dribble rate. This implies that he is fundamentally playing a similar type of game; he's just now doing it better. We'll see later, however, a couple of tweaks to his style. His rate of improvement is consistent with what you might expect from a promising young player.
Since becoming part of the Liverpool team, Sterling's touch and pass rates have averaged out around 60 touches per match and 37 passes per match. These averages have been consistent from the very start and again support the thesis that he's now playing a similar version of the game, but better. More recently his involvement level has been rising, which may suggest he is becoming more confident within the team or indeed his team has more confidence in him.
3. What's his position?
It's fascinating to see how many different positions Brendan Rodgers has played him in; indeed Sterling is a case in point for Rodgers' tactical flexibility and nous in regard to subtly tailoring his formations depending on his opponent. Sterling's early matches involved an equal fairly spread between flanks and it's only recently he seems to have been used more often in a centrally attacking midfield spot; one in which he has thrived:
- He is far more effective in the centre or on the left. See both goal and assist rates.
- He shoots more from the left or centre & he is more accurate
- He does nothing best from the right bar quantity of crosses.
Here i've combined his minutes into rough 5 game buckets to attempt to identify where improvements have been made. From about the half-way point, as indicated by the line, his improvement and changes in his game are noticable.
- His Goal/Assist rate takes a leap forward
- He's dribbling more
- His pass% dips (an indication of more variation)
- He crosses less (probably positional effect, more time in centre)
- He starts playing long balls and through balls, things he'd barely used prior. See here:
5. He's as good as...
Here's a chart of a few other prodigal youths from recent times. It shows what these players were doing during the seasons in which they turned 19. (In particular, Sturridge's figure is inflated by playing few minutes.)
- Fabregas, Rooney & Sterling can all be commended for playing so many minutes at such a young age. It is very much a rarity in the Premier League for such young players to be so often utilised by their teams.
- Rooney is effectively 2 goals better than Sterling was, suggesting they are comparable at this stage
- Fabregas had a nightmare of a shooting season in his year taking 62 shots to register a goal. He can be considered unlucky not to rate higher and leads the assist totals.
- Messi was up to half speed by now, but Cristiano Ronaldo was still doing hundreds of stepovers.
- The Real Ronaldo suffered a knee injury but was still too good for the Eredivisie.
Well: these are the two seasons Rooney had preceding his 19yo season (& Ronaldo's 18yo season thrown in for good measure):
^Magic from the boy Rooney there.
Pure sorcery from Ronaldo.
He's pretty good isn't he?
I'm encouraged that Sterling seems to have a professional attitude towards his craft, is a committed team man & is improving noticeably quickly. There was some consternation when Roy Hodgson picked him in the centre of an AM three in the World Cup ahead of Rooney who was stationed on the left. To my mind either of them could have interchanged, but it showed the high esteem that Sterling is being held in from within the game. He is likely to be the next star for England and whilst a very different type of player to Rooney, he's only going to improve and improve from a very solid initial level, something that helps understand exactly why Rodgers & Hodgson appear to be building their attacks around him.
Thanks for reading!
James Yorke 09/2014
Make sure you check back each Sunday/Monday for the Premier League review column & any of the other stats articles i'm likely to churn out as time goes on...
If you like this spread the word! Take it to your forums, tweet it to the president, print it out, make a paper aeroplane and fire it down the street.
Cheers! *Stats from whoscored/transfermarkt and other weird depths of the internet.