Monday, 8 September 2014

Raheem the Dream & who's good at 19?

As far as roles go, being the newest & brightest star in the England team is a lucrative position.  When combined with both your national and club coaches seemingly building attacks to serve your strengths, then you're clearly set for good times.  Raheem Sterling is currently residing in these enviable positions & it has not taken him long to move through the 'promising' ranks and land where he currently is.  But what type of talent is he? Where are his strengths and how does he compare to other prodigiously talented youngsters that have come before?

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.

2. Passes/Touches
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.
He really shouldn't be used on the right flank.  This isn't merely a case of transitioning positions through time; he has spent a lot of time on either flank from early on.  He seems to be a classically modern attacker: a right footer most effective cutting in from the left or playing centrally. 

4. Progress

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:
Unsurprisingly, all these rate improvements started to occur from around December 2013.  He finally got a run in the team after missing the latter stages of 2012/13 with injury & making sporadic appearances in the early stages of 2013/14.  It seems to me his time spent out wasn't wasted & whilst being part of a team including Sturridge & Suarez will have no doubt benefitted his progress, i'll suggest that he spent some of his time on the fringes improving and adapting parts of his game.  His passing has clearly become more varied and he is a genuine goal threat.  As we move into 2014/15 and with the likelihood that his value to the team will increase as the Suarez hole is filled, he is shaping up well.  

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.
So is Sterling as promising as Rooney?

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.

6. So...?

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...
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Cheers! *Stats from whoscored/transfermarkt and other weird depths of the internet.

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