Liverpool’s season plunged into further crisis with the loss against arch-rivals Manchester United. The Kop hadn’t even got over the pains of being ousted from the Champions League by Basel before United struck the killer blow in the 71st minute. While the manager and the players introspect on their abilities and the way forward, we look at one of the bright spots from the game for the red half of the Merseyside: the performance of Raheem Sterling as a striker.
Sterling was moved into a more central role from the usual wide role he has been deployed in this season and that gave the LFC midfield an impetus to work towards a focal point, something that was missing in the previous games. Yes, he did miss a number of easy opportunities, but many forget that he isn’t a natural goal scorer and his finishing remains poor, having converted just 3 of the 24 chances that have come his way this season. However, despite that, playing him central might help him improve on this numbers.
Sterling has been LFC’s best player since the departure of Luis Suarez. At 19, he carries the burden of attack ahead of the likes of Balotelli, Lallana and Gerrard. It wasn’t any different on Sunday, with the youngster being the focal point of Liverpool’s attack, playing from centre and at times drifting to the left in order to create opportunities for his team mates. His movement off the ball and dribbling abilities were on display again and he was involved in 9 chances through the game (5 shots and 4 chances created).
In total, he had 5 shots on target, with one of them coming very early in the first half when Lallana found him with a through ball. Had Sterling converted that chance, a lot of us would like to, in retrospect, believe that the result could have been very different. However, Sterling’s left footed shot was well and truly covered by the imperious De Gea. The striker saw 2 more opportunities come his way in the first half, but wasn’t able to convert either. In certain circumstances he got into a good position but took too long to unleash the shot. His pace and movement, helped him trouble an often crowded United defence and he would have more credits for his work had he found the back of the net. Apart from these, he did tee up Gerrard to have a pop at goal from a distance. However, De Gea was able to hold on to a rather tame shot from the skipper.
With the introduction of Balotelli in the second half, the Englishman was in a secondary role and he stuck to creating chances. However, his best chance of the game came in the 51st minute when he found himself one on one with De Gea after chasing down a long back pass. With LFC down by 2 goals, an early response in the 2nd half could have provided the club with the required motivation to push for a comeback. However, Sterling was wasteful in his effort and reprieved Johny Evans and Michael Carrick from their mistake. Sterling, despite missing chances, troubled the United defence time and again. Working in closed spaces comes naturally to him and it came as no surprise when Raheem was able to go past a bunch of defenders and cross the ball for Henderson, who failed to hit the target. What was surprising was that Balotelli was deployed ahead of Sterling in the line up as the Italian has always shown a penchant for holding up play and creating opportunities for his strike partner. His ability to keep defenders engaged on and off the ball would have created many more chances for Sterling.
Last season, we saw Liverpool press from the front with Suarez and Sturridge and it was best replicated with Sterling pressing with intent and hurrying up the United back line at times. He recovered the ball on 6 occasions in the game and was a constant threat with his direct approach with the ball at his feet. Renowned for his pace, Sterling was always going to be a tough one to catch if let free. To their credit, United were able to stop him in his stride more often than not as he won just 3 out of 7 take-ons he attempted. He did beat Jones in the box, only to shoot directly at De Gea.
With Liverpool’s fortunes dwindling, the move to play Sterling as a striker might turn out to be a moment to reckon with. He has the pace and movement to carve open defences and if the creative forces in the team like Lallana and Coutinho (mind you he was poor against United) he could finally have an outlet to play into. While his wastefulness will need to be sorted, we must not forget that he is still 19 and learning. Liverpool Legend John Aldridge was impressed by Sterling’s performance and believes the youngster was miles ahead of his teammates at Old Trafford.
“I’ve been there myself – and all I would say to Raheem is keep getting in those positions, keep shooting hard and keep shooting low – and if you do you’ll find that the goals will soon start to flow.” –Aldridge
The move to play him as a striker did not affect the result against a Manchester United side that has goalkeeper De Gea to thank for having bailed them out time and again this season. Nevertheless, should Rodgers persist with Sterling alongside another striker, the lad did enough to suggest brighter days ahead.