The big transfer sagas of the summer revolved around two players, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale. One hand, after a bid from Arsenal, interest from Real Madrid and a certain willingness to part with the team, Liverpool were able to persuade Suarez into staying, knowing that if they had ambitions of progressing under Brendan Rodgers and his target of once again being a force in both England and in Europe, they had to keep hold of their star man.
In London however, Spurs faced the inevitable fact of parting with their own star player in Bale. A world record bid was enough for Madrid to persuade the Welshman to move to the Spanish giants and with Bale having sometimes single handedly won games on his own for Spurs last season, they had to search for suitable players that had the potential to make a similar impact on the team. Alas, having spent over £100 million on the likes of Soldado, Lamela and Eriksen, Spurs have been mightily poor so far, culminating in the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas after a 5-0 drubbing at home to Liverpool. It goes to show that sometimes holding onto what you have can be priceless and that all the money in the world isn’t necessarily going to bring you success, especially in the short term.
Moving onto the main topic for piece, Liverpool were at their sumptuous best at White Hart Lane. Having lost their last previous six games away to Spurs, they were able to put history behind them with an almost flawless performance, albeit a poor one at that from Spurs. Luis Suarez was again at his very best with two goals and two assists within the match, one in which he captained the side in the absence of Steven Gerrard. However, this was far from a one man show with all 11 men playing their part in a cohesive team display. Henderson was given the MOTM award at full time for his excellent performance in midfield with many calling it “Gerrardesque”. The other man who was able to catch the eye was Raheem Sterling.
Sterling at his best
The 19-year-old made tremendous strides last season having been given a chance in the first team due to a lack of depth in the Reds squad and did not disappoint. However, with acquisitions made in the summer, Sterling has been a bit-part player so far this season with Brendan Rodgers preferring to concentrate less on wing play and more on the two main strikers and central midfield. With injuries having occurred to key players in the team, Sterling has now found himself as a regular starter but had evidently lost some of the spark and confidence from his performances last year during the first few matches he was involved in. Saying that, it is amazing to see how players change once settling in and having a consistent run of games which is definitely the case with Sterling.
The image above depicts Sterling’s heat map from the match against Tottenham, with the lighter green areas showing where he spent majority of the game within. As you can see the right hand side was dominated by Sterling and his tricky wing play. Kyle Naughton was the unfortunate defender up against Sterling and was given a torrid time and eventually substituted at half time. At every available opportunity, Sterling was aiming to find Naughton one on one and it was clear as early as the first 10 mins that he was ready to target the Spurs fullback especially when going towards the opposition box. Spurs soon realised that Sterling had the beating of Naughton with his pace and skill and eventually doubled up on the winger with Chadli also joining in to stop the pressure building on the right hand side. This however was to no avail and even though Zeki Fryers came on at half time and didn’t perform too badly, Sterling was in no mood to rest on his laurels and continued his aggressive attacking play resulting in the 5th goal and key roles in all the others. Many wingers are judged on their “end product” or final ball when in wide areas and Sterling ticked all the boxes are this performance
In young players especially, confidence and self-belief is vital in order to produce results on the pitch. This relates to none more so than Sterling. Having made multiple substitute appearances during the start of the season, he was only given a chance at a starting berth in the 13th game of the season against Hull. Liverpool started with a winger on each side with Sterling playing on the left and Victor Moses given the role on the right-hand side. Both players were eager to impress but were very poor in their own right and made very little impact in the final third. Sterling seemed lacklustre and lethargic and his vision in picking out passes to Suarez was quite bleak. As good as Suarez can be, his team-mates have to offer support within the opposition half for him to capitalise but this was not the case against Hull.
A point made within the Anfield Index Podcast this week led to an interesting discussion about how Sterling seemed quite apprehensive and uneasy on the ball. Unsuccessful passes to Suarez from Sterling prompted harsh words to the young boy in which Sterling reluctantly accepted. Sterling was also hesitant in receiving the ball and showed signs of a player clearly lacking in confidence. However, after consecutive starts against Norwich, West Ham and Spurs, there has been a clearly difference in his play. In each game, he has progressively become more and more involved in Liverpool’s good work in the attacking half with 2 goals, an assist and improved displays to show for it. When looking deeper into his behaviour on the pitch, his self-assurance has improved dramatically with Sterling looking to receive and even calling for passes whenever available. He has even gone as far as to give Luis Suarez a piece of his own medicine when not receiving a pass when available.
The images above show the contrasting displays of Sterling during the Hull and Spurs matches and you can see a very visible difference in involvement between the two games. The Hull match shows Sterling having very little impact in terms of passing (shown by red or blue arrows) and attacking especially in and around the penalty area. In the match against Spurs however, there was an obvious hunger and desire to penetrate the right hand side of the opposition defence with more passes, more successful take-ons within the final third (shown by the green and orange stars) and even a goal to sum up his performance.
The stats above allow us to see the changes in number form with a growing improvement in an attacking sense after each game. The Hull match shows very little with only one shot which was blocked from Sterling compared to the three shots against Spurs, with a shot accuracy of 50% and a chance conversion rate of 50% as well. Age is a factor with Sterling having to learn to adapt again to the speed of football having played very little before the Hull match. Although you can be training with your team mates every day, during a real match it will be completely different and I think that Sterling has had to familiarise himself again to the style and overall play of the team but has shown that he is back on track with his performances.
A surprising and pleasing aspect on Sterling’s performance was his dogged and aggressive defensive display. The desire to win the ball in his own half and go on to create attacking opportunities for the team show a different side of his game that he has been working on. His pressing on the right hand side was more than enough to stop Chadli creating any chances for his team and relieved some of the defensive duties of Glen Johnson, who was able to roam forward as a result of this.
Sterling’s willingness to track back resulted in three out of four successful tackles (Green and orange crosses) as well as an interception (green diamond) and although he committed three fouls along the way (Black triangles), he desire to help the team out defensive contributed to an overall excellent show both individually and collectively.
Consistency and World Cup chances
It will be interesting to see how things pan out for Sterling once players like Sturridge and Gerrard return as well as any signings likely to be made in the January transfer window but for now as long as he is in the team, Sterling looks settled and assured and can only improve with age so a run of games is always likely to result in consistent performances which is what he, Liverpool and the current England manager, Roy Hodgson, who was watching in the stands at White Hart Lane, will be hoping for. There has been talk of Sterling possible going on loan for the second half of the season but with the injuries sustained to key players in recent weeks, it seems an unlikely option considering the lack of depth in attacking players in the squad. With Liverpool currently flying high, having scored 14 goals in their last 3 games, much of the plaudits will be going to Suarez but Sterling and co have been doing their fair share to ensure that they are in the hunt for a Champions league place and maybe even a title fight come the end of the season. The games within Christmas/New Year period will give us a better indication as to whether Liverpool can sustain a challenge at the top and with key away fixtures coming up against Man City and Chelsea, if positive results are produced, the future is looking bright heading into 2014.