Last season, two outstanding English youngsters burst onto the spotlight with splendid seasons for their respective Merseyside clubs resulting in them being included in England’s 23-man squad for the recently concluded World Cup in Brazil.
Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley both had their proverbial ‘breakthrough seasons’ as they made an almost identical number of appearances, with 24 and 25 starts for Liverpool and Everton respectively, and 9 apiece coming as substitutes.
Both of them were named in the six players shortlisted for the PFA Young Player of the Year award which included Aaron Ramsey, Daniel Sturridge, Luke Shaw and eventual winner Eden Hazard.
Sterling was signed by Liverpool from Queens Park Rangers’ youth academy in February 2010 by Rafa Benitez for an initial fee of £600,000, which could rise up to £5 million depending on how many appearances he goes on to make for the club.
He made three substitute appearances for the club in 2011/12 before starting 19 games in the season before last.
Besides being the second-youngest player ever to play for the club in the league, he is also the second-youngest player ever to score in a competitive fixture for Liverpool behind Michael Owen.
Barkley meanwhile joined Everton at the age of 11 playing for the club’s youth teams. He was named as a substitute for the home Premier League game at the age of 16 against Newcastle in September 2010 and was expected to make his Premier League debut before suffering a horrific leg break in three places after an accidental collision with team-mate Andre Wisdom during an England under-19 match a month later.
He played an important part for the England team that were the European Under-17 winners in 2010 before making two starts each in the 11/12 and 12/13 seasons while spending time with Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United on short term loans during the season before last.
Style of play
Sterling was considered a one trick pony with his speed considered to be his only asset. Those critics couldn’t have been more wrong as the player went on to prove that some of his best qualities along with his explosive pace are his understanding of the game and a great vision along with exemplary composure for someone so young that accompanies his fearless attitude when on the pitch.
He has a brilliant first touch and is always looking to receive the ball, whether out wide or when playing through the centre. He looks to turn and get past players with his tremendous burst of acceleration and his nifty dribbling skills. Also despite having a slender frame, he is only 5 ft 7 in and weighs less than 70 kilograms, he is incredibly strong and that helps him shake off markers when he is going past them.
Sterling is now equally capable of playing on either flank having started his career on the right, while he also excelled on the free role behind the striker when he was deployed there in a few matches during the Red’s 11-game winning streak at the back end of last season.
Ross Barkley similarly is supremely intelligent on the pitch with a fantastic attitude which no doubt comes from the tough times he faced when was recovering from the many injuries he suffered early on in his career. He is quite mature for his age and with his strong, athletic physique, few players are able to put him off when he decides to get into his stride running at them with blistering speed.
He can shoot well with either foot and has the ability to find space in the tightest of areas while dragging defenders out of position, which helps his team-mates bomb forward and the goal he scored against Newcastle when he ran from inside his own half, ghosting past opponents on the way before finishing with his left foot speaks volumes of the budding superstar.
The Liverpool born player is predominantly a central attacking midfielder, having played as a box-to-box midfielder during his early days and likes to exploit the spaces in between the lines and run with the ball though he is equally comfortable playing out wide on the left.
Both the young prodigies scored stunning opening goals Manchester City within the space of 20 days which oozed of remarkable awareness, wonderful technique and sheer genius.
Sterling’s goal, Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City
Barkley’s goal, Everton 2-3 Manchester City
Statistical comparison from last season
Sterling and Barkley were both heavily involved in their teams’ play in the final third. Playing an almost similar number of passes, they completed 74% and 76% of those respectively.
Barkley though played more passes in the attacking zone and completed a higher percentage (81%) of those passes.
The two supremely confident young English talents were third and fourth in behind Eden Hazard and Luis Suarez in the number of dribbles completed in the English Premier League – with Sterling completing 92 and Barkley 80. They were a menace to the opposition defences as their respective teams looked up to them in order to pick up the ball and burst forward with guile not only out wide but also through the centre of the pitch.
Sterling attempted more crosses than Barkley having also played on the flanks, though Barkley completed a slightly higher percentage of his crosses with 17%.
Sterling created 47 chances for his team-mates, registering 5 assists in the process; but, despite Barkley creating 24 chances from open play, surprisingly he never found the final ball for a goal having only created 2 clear-cut chances compared to Sterling’s 11.
Sterling scored nine goals while Barkley scored six with a chance conversion rate of 27% and 12% respectively. Sterling was more accurate with his shots than Barkley with a shooting accuracy of 67% to his Merseyside rival’s 38%.
Barkley meanwhile was the trigger happy of the two with a shot every 46 minutes compared to Sterling who attempted a shot every 67 minutes.
Sterling though was guilty of missing 10 clear-cut chances compared to Barkley’s three.
The Jamaican born player can be somewhat selfish at times by taking a shot with his weaker left foot when he is better off passing to players who are in a lot of space because the opposition move out to meet him, as happened a few times last season. Also his crossing needs to be more precise.
Barkley similarly can take one touch too many on the ball and needs to significantly improve on his zero assists from last season. He also takes lot of long-range shots, which can get frustrating for his own teammates.
At the age of 19 and 20 respectively, the idea of their managers building their teams around these two fine young individuals should be preposterous. But that is exactly what Rodgers and Martinez should both look to do next season with these two players who have an impressive winning mentality to accompany their undeniable talent.
Both of these players are not afraid to express themselves on the pitch because they are so confident of their own abilities, and that is certainly a hallmark of great players.