Raheem Sterling’s Liverpool future has been thrown into serious question. Yesterday, a very frank interview with the BBC has plunged the spotlight on one of the youngest and brightest English talents in the game. Sterling has reportedly turned down a £180k a week contract with Liverpool, though the actual figure is probably more around 100k a week, from his current 35k a week contract which still has two years left on it. From coming to Liverpool from QPR as a 16-year-old to nailing down a starting place at the age of 19, Sterling has shown the grit and determination to succeed.
For any young player, their goal is to win trophies. Though many point to ‘mercenary’ footballers going to any club for a payday, the majority of players would pick a bigger club simply to be remembered as the player who won a trophy there. Hard as it may be to believe, I don’t think money is the primary motive for most players. Obviously, there are exceptions, some players such as Benoit Assou-Ekoto famously said that football was just a job to him. Mario Balotelli doesn’t celebrate after scoring a goal (when he was scoring). Should Sterling be any different? Liverpool’s last trophy was in 2012, beating Cardiff on penalties to win the League Cup. Their last before that was the FA Cup in 2006. Whilst winning any trophy is to be commended, two in nine years isn’t good enough for Liverpool to be keeping their top talent. With the loss of Steven Gerrard, this is going to be a radical period of change.
To be fair to Sterling, he is aware of his own value. He wants to be paid more than older, less accomplished players. Daniel Sturridge has recently taken out a mortgage on the physio’s room. Balotelli has had a terrible first season, for a player surrounded with so much hype. But I think Sterling will compare himself more with Adam Lallana. Last season, Sterling was played more centrally, ending the season and starting the World Cup as an attacking midfielder, where he shone. With the loss of Suarez and the arrival of Lallana, Sterling was again pushed out onto the wing, where he is less effective. For example, in the two games against Chelsea in the League Cup this year, Sterling was a constant menace, scoring an excellent solo goal and providing a consistent threat. Have any of Lallana’s performances this season compared to that? Though he is a good player, Lallana has much more experience than Sterling, but he doesn’t look to be on a different level. Lallana is currently earning 100k a week. Sterling will be thinking that he deserves the same.
But, on the other hand, just how good is Sterling? Despite those game against Chelsea, he doesn’t look the same player as last season. Part of that is due to Rodger’s formation- a wide midfielder or a wing-back is not the same as a winger. A winger needs to be pacier, more agile, with an ability to shoot and make chances. A wide midfielder needs more stamina, and more awareness, and most of all more strength, such as David Beckham. Sterling has a very tailored skill set, but has been played in more positions than most this season, including as a false nine. He has looked devoid of ideas, his final ball has not been good enough, and he has been laboured. His finishing hasn’t improved on last season, and Liverpool’s attacking unit has often looked misshapen due to the lack of a focal point. Both he and Coutinho have a tendency to go missing in games, and he is feeling the pressure from Jordon Ibe, who has been excellent since his return.
If Liverpool sell Sterling, they will probably expect around £40 million from a fellow Premier League club (his main suitors are rumoured to be Arsenal, opening the door for Theo Walcott), or slightly less from a Real Madrid or PSG. Not only is Sterling young, with plenty of potential, he’s also English, which means he’ll probably go for much more than his market value. But for Sterling, it will mean going from a guaranteed starter at 20 into a ‘maybe’ player at a bigger club. He didn’t really dazzle in the Champions League at the highest echelons, but impressed against Italy in the World Cup, showing that his talent, while mercurial, is there.
For Liverpool, losing Sterling will be a blow, but not a deadly one. Rodger’s has enough in his phalanx of scouts and youth players to come into the first team, and the money they get from Sterling, should he leave, will be enough to get a world-class player to replace him. Rodgers will have to address his formation over the summer anyway, and the whole contract issue with Sterling will muddy the waters anyway. Liverpool fans are notoriously loyal to their own, and hostile to players that leave for higher wages, and I don’t think Raheem Sterling has the inner fortitude not to let that get to him. On the other hand, football fans are fickle, and should Sterling stay and score 20 goals next season, all will be forgiven.
What does Sterling have to gain by leaving? Should he refuse the contract at the end of the season, there are obviously a number of suitors for his signature, but for him, will he get the development he needs? At 20, he is still nowhere near the finished article, and he will need a manager who specialises in youth to get the best out of him. At Real Madrid, his arrival could signal the end of Gareth Bale, only two years after becoming the most expensive player of all time. Though this is mere speculation, Sterling is not at Bale’s level, and at most clubs, his alternating form will mean he won’t start every game. As for winning trophies, is it better to win them as a big fish in a small pond or take part in a few games and watch your team mates lift it in your stead? He has already seen Lallana, Lovren and Lambert join his club and not set the world on fire. He needs to decide if that is where his future lies.
By doing the interview, Sterling has broken the trust that Liverpool have placed in him. What goes on behind the scenes at Liverpool Football Club should be their business. Sterling has already jeopardised his position by refusing the contract. Rodgers has to be strong. If he bows to Sterling’s demands, where will it end? No player is bigger than the club. Rodgers has to understand this. Sterling does too. Sterling has to look at the many young players that have gone to a big club to sit on the bench, and make a decision quickly on where his future lies. I think Sterling will stay at Liverpool and sign a new contract. But I also think a little part of him will look at the big clubs, remember Suarez almost handing in a transfer request in the summer of 2013, and wonder what might be.