By Karl Matchett
If Liverpool surprised more than a few people with their ability to win games and challenge for the Premier League title in 2013-14, an awful lot of stern, memorable lessons were handed out between January and May. With a couple of 5-0 and a 4-0 hammerings dealt the way of Tottenham Hotspur in that time, the north London side should have heeded those teachings more than most.
Fast forward to the start of the present campaign and Spurs—complete with another new manager—had the chance to show they were ready to compete with Liverpool for a top-four finish, but once more they were undone by the power, pressing and precision of the Reds’ midfield diamond.
While it is shape which allows a number of Brendan Rodgers’ key players to flourish, one stands out more than most: Raheem Sterling.
Formerly used as a winger or an inverted forward, Sterling used his pace to blaze beyond full-backs before moving infield to shoot or provide a final ball—but such has been his tactical, as much as his technical, improvement over the past year that the teenager can now reasonably claim the No. 10, central attacking midfield position, as his best role in the team. In Liverpool’s diamond midfield, he is indispensable in that role: able to work hard defensively, press his opponent into a mistake…and then surge beyond the opposition pivot, breaking into space with his great acceleration.
It allows Liverpool to overload very quickly through the centre, with Sterling looking to exchange passes with the forwards or commit defenders with his dribbling. Either way, it inevitably leads to a chance for the Reds to test the goalkeeper.
New arrivals this summer at Anfield include Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana, both attacking midfielders who could reasonably lay claim to that same role in a diamond. Sterling’s advantage is that he can play in a number of roles, including as the second of the two forwards ahead of that point. Not a natural striker, he nonetheless stretches play with his pace, is free to roam the channels and has an ever-improving end product in front of goal.
His link-up play with Luis Suarez was at times bordering on the genius last season; with Suarez now departed he has sought to do similarly with Philippe Coutinho—when the Brazilian plays from deeper positions—and Daniel Sturridge. How he ends up combining with Mario Balotelli is another intriguing storyline to watch.
Rodgers has so far restricted Sterling basically to half-seasons of involvement.
A breakout 12-13 campaign was borne of necessity and lack of options as much as Sterling’s own ability, but from January onward in that campaign he barely featured. Last season it was the opposite way round; up until December he was largely substitute, before nailing down a starting role thereafter. Having excelled over Liverpool’s title run-in and gone to the World Cup as a first XI choice for England, Sterling’s own seasonal objective has to be to try and extend those performances over an entire domestic season. Added competition gives him the chance to rest from time to time, but he is also quite clearly vital to the team set-up.
Sterling has already made his mark domestically and internationally, but this season will see him take that ability to the Champions League stage too. Perform as he did against Tottenham—at Anfield last season or at White Hart Lane already this—and soon enough, the footballing entire world will know of the immense talent the Liverpool attacker possesses.
You can find Karl on Twitter at @karlmatchettKategorier: Premier League