Monday, October 13, 2014

Defending Raheem Sterling

Originally written for my Beyond the Ninety column on the Voomfootball website.

Raheem Sterling has come in for some serious flak in the past 24 hours. England fans have been upset that the Liverpool midfielder spoke to Roy Hodgson before England’s game with Estonia and told the national boss that he felt jaded and out of form. With this in mind Hodgson replaced Sterling with Adam Lallana as England laboured to a 1-0 victory over Estonia.
                                 
It has been interesting to witness the variety of criticisms that have been levelled at Sterling. Firstly, how can a 19-year-old be tired a month into the season? Secondly, how dare a player who earns thousands of pounds each week be tired ever? Thirdly, who is calling the shots in the England camp? Each carries some validity but yet none of them really hold sway. Let’s deal with each of these in turn.

Those of us who have watched Sterling’s performances for Liverpool can testify to the fact that he is not enjoying the same rich vein of form that characterised his performances towards the end of last season. He possesses such pace and talent that he is still a potent attacking threat but his runs are meandering rather than incisive, his passes all too often misplaced. One may wonder how a player so young can be fatigued but that he is showing signs of tiredness is surely not in doubt. Moaning that he shouldn’t be tired does nothing to change this fact.

Raheem Sterling is handsomely rewarded for his footballing ability. Once his contract negotiations with Liverpool have been completed he can expect to receive around £100,000 a week. This is, of course, absolutely ridiculous and another sign that market forces are a complete nonsense. Workers in the public sector (nurses, civil servants, teachers) will go on strike having been offered a measly 1% pay rise. We live in a horribly unequal society. Football in particular seems to know the price of everything and everyone and the value of nothing. But, once again, this does not stop Raheem Sterling actually being out of form.

Finally there is a question around Roy Hodgson’s leadership. Is he letting the players call the shots? Or did he drop Sterling to the bench to placate the increasingly irate Brendon Rodgers? Frankly, who cares? The cult of the manager, complete with strong, interventionist leadership, is everywhere in society but at its worst in football. Hodgson made his team selection on the strength of the information in front of him. Such decisions are made every single day and don’t mean that players have more power than managers. Would that it were the case. As anyone who has ever gone to work can tell you, managers know very little about what happens. Given the way England are playing at the moment it might not be a bad idea to get rid of Hodgson and let the players work it out for themselves. 

Assuming that Sterling is genuine – not just pulling the footballing equivalent of phoning into work and telling your boss you’ve got the squits – then he is to be congratulated, not castigated. He is aware of the limitations of his own body, he is open and honest enough to tell Hodgson that he doesn’t feel at his best, and he has put the needs of the team above his own self-interest. Sterling is no fool, he will have known the expectation that people are placing on his shoulders. Under this pressure one might expect a teenager to buckle, instead he trusted his instincts.

Sterling’s body is still changing, still developing. He already looks a completely different figure to the spindly boy that made his debut for Liverpool in March 2012: his physique is bigger, his shoulders broader, his upper body more muscular than before. Without a strategy to manage this continuing development the incessant demands of the modern game will take a heavy toll. Sterling is still at the stage where he needs to be rested occasionally. The alternative is potentially career threatening.


And there are warnings from Liverpool’s own recent history. Both Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen burst on to the Anfield scene as precocious teenagers; neither would ever fully realise his potential. As I've noted elsewhere on this website: "In his first four full seasons playing for Liverpool Fowler appeared in 188 games. Over the same timespan Owen notched up 160 appearances. It was an incredible stress to place on the bodies of professional athletes who were little more than boys. The prodigious talents of both players dawned in an era of fading fortune for Liverpool FC. When Kenny Dalglish resigned from his position of manager after Hillsborough he left behind an aging squad, short on fire power. To exhibit such extraordinary ability at such a tender age was the curse of both men. The intensity of those early years – the result of a club desperate for glory, honours and revenue - almost certainly accounts for the fact that neither man reached his full potential." 

If Raheem Sterling is to avoid a similar fate then he must continue to be brave enough to know the limits of his own body.