Expectation seems to find itself held awkwardly when it comes to Raheem Sterling. The world expects so much from Raheem in which he is often held to such a high and unfair standard. His attitude, ambition and personality almost always called into question in any given order. Someone recently suggested that he was possibly the most criticised young footballer in the world.
The fact is that perceptions couldn’t be further from the truth. Ask anyone who has played or trained with Sterling, his coaches and even good old Aidy Ward and they’ll tell you he’s not someone who seeks the limelight, but rather a meek and quiet kid focused on achieving all he can in his career. Let’s not forget that this is the same kid that suffered from a terrible character assassination last year where he seemingly went from the best young talent in the world to an overrated, greedy plodder in just a few short weeks.
It’s often forgotten that Sterling is still in the soft-clay period of his career, ready to be moulded into the wonderful player I know he can be. Yet he has never been afforded the leeway that is usually attributed to youngsters of his age. His emotionally fragility is often called into questioning while every glaring miss is completely overblown.
I think people forget how incredibly gifted he is and how much he can already do. Raheem Sterling dribbles, scores and creates at a very high level. That automatically places him in among an exclusive clique of forwards in world football. If you doubt that then sit back and think of how many wide-men can do all that. Trust me, you’ll struggle to list many players better than Sterling.
His skills are only more remarkable when you realise he literally just turned 21. Twenty-one. He is figuratively a footballing baby yet he’s already accomplished so much and has such a refined skill-set. Raheem Sterling has already been a key player for two huge clubs and is a fulcrum of one the best international teams in the world. At that age, Neymar was still at Santos while Alexis Sanchez was barely scoring for Udinese. Raheem Sterling deserves far more respect than he is given.
His season so far has gone as good as it could’ve have – posting good, year on year improving numbers, delivering a few big moments along the way and generally finding his feet in a top team. Yet, for some reason, there remains a relaying lingering expectancy from some fans. He is the £50m boy, the whiner who in the end got his way but isn’t setting the world alight. And most obliviously, his apparently delirious finishing that is so bad that he could never repay that sort of fee. But that honestly couldn’t be further from the truth.
Raheem Sterling has eleven goals in all competitions this season, a healthy return for a player used sporadically at times this season. Looking at conversion rates he stands at about 12% in the Premier League, a sum that is actually higher than counterparts Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony. In fact, only Kevin De Bryune (15%) and Sergio Aguero (19%) really trump him in the team. But compare Raheem to Alexis Sanchez (9%) and Saido Mane (5%) and he is right in the ballpark. Could it be better? Probably. Is it ‘bad’? Certainly not. And based on his shots on target his “expected goals” (a popular new method used to measure the quality of chances a player has) is 7 and he has 6, so it’s not like he’s massively underachieving.
What’s more interesting than his shooting statistics thought is the sort of game he plays compared to his time at Liverpool where he made his name. At Manchester City, he seems condemned to a rigid game installed upon him by Manuel Pellegrini: receive, run five yards and attempt to interchange your way into the box; all the while while our right hand side looks timid going forward. Young wingers should regularly swap wings to hone their game yet he isn’t being granted that liberty by Pellegrini. There was a fluidity to the Sterling that made his name at Liverpool, where he enjoyed positional freedom in a variety of positions. Here, he isn’t granted the freedom to enjoy and express himself. In fact, the only place he is ever is allowed to do that is in Europe, where he has looked superb and has arguably been our best player. It’s no coincidence that when he enjoys more responsibility he shines, especially on a platform where pace and technical ability are favoured over the power and mayhem of the Premier League.
Raheem Sterling’s progress has been steady and good. For such a young player he has already achieved so much. If we were to play a Champions League final tomorrow afternoon then he would almost certainly start on the left side – even if everybody were to be fit. But like any young player he needs time and patience, space to grow to learn from his mistakes and hone his skills. There might be legitimate questions over certain aspects of his game but one thing remains clear to me, Raheem Sterling remains firmly on the path towards greatness.