Some things change, some stay the same. In Raheem Sterling's relationship with Liverpool, quite a lot of things have changed over the 229 days that will have passed by the time he lines up in the
Capitol One Carling Cup final this Sunday. One big change is that Sterling will be lining up as a Sky Blue Citizen on that day. Another is that he will do so against a Liverpool side being molded by Herr Kloppo, First of His Name, Bequeather of Cool, Requiter of Lost Possession, and Engorger of Clamor.
Now, as anyone this side of Dr. Spaceman will happily recall, this is not the first time Sterling will face the club he acrimoniously jettisoned himself from last Summer. But this does, however, feel like a much more important reunion between Liverpool and the homegrown crown jewel they were Warded away from last July.
For starters, this is a cup final whereas the first time through was an early season clash between a stuttering City side and a Liverpool team still pinching itself to make sure Jürgen Klopp was really real. More importantly, as so much has changed between this club and that player, it has become increasingly obvious that the song remains the same in one major way: Raheem Sterling is a perfect fit for Liverpool.
To be clear, Sterling wanted out of town. So, this is not meant as an insatiable pining for the salad days with a player who just wasn't that into us. Sterling got his mad duckets, and as close as it gets to a guarantee that he'll be challenging for yearly honors alongside all time great teammates, and under all time great coaches.
But Redkind got theirs, too. The extended, all encompassing state of euphoria that is every second of Jürgen Klopp ever is a consolation prize for losing Sterling in the same way that a two week yacht party off the coast of Monaco is a consolation to Leonardo DiCaprio after yet another main squeeze realizes that yeah, he's still Leo.
But think about the potential between those lines for a minute. It's pretty hard to come up with a better intersection of need, talent, and opportunity than Raheem Sterling being on Klopp's team sheets this season. How quickly would Firmino have gotten on the same wavelength with the kid? How many less times would a wide possession disregard numbers in the box to get dribbled directly at two defenders before being unceremoniously turned over? And how many cools would have been elicited from Klopp with that rastabeard/Kid n Locks coiffure combo the Jamainglish has been dabbling with this year?
Getting back to need, a missing piece of the attacking puzzle all year has been the lack of pace, incisiveness, and intelligence in the off-the-ball movement from out wide. Sterling's not just bringing one of those things, he's bringing all of them. That would be a massive impact for a system that wants to repeatedly pinch possession in dangerous areas and hit quickly and skillfully for its attempts at goals.
Some of the most dangerous areas to pinch possession in are out wide. A lot of times, that's where the gegenpress will catch a centerback drifting wide and a fullback caught pushing up the field to attack. Turn the opposition over in that sort of scenario and you've got numbers on the break. Combine numbers on the break with pacy one touch combinations, and goalscoring chances get created faster than you can say "I just filled my shorts."
The key here is this area needs sharp awareness, quicksilver pace, and top, top, top, top quality on the ball to come off consistently. Liverpool have these traits, but not all in one wide option. They have the touch and awareness in Adam Lallana and they have the pace and directness in Jordon Ibe, but neither is fully satisfying this critical need for Liverpool's transitional game. Not that the need is just about the transitional game.
You know what Christian Benteke would have paid good money for this season? Consistently timed runs that drift across the backline from wide, and arrive into areas that he can get a flicked header on to. He would have paid even more if those time runs were also coming from a guy who could give Firmino and Coutinho an off the shoulder, vertical sprint that leaves markers behind.
Those two things are very simple to talk about, but the ability to make these sorts of runs is a rare skill to find. Doubly so in a wide man. Three times as rare in a wide man who is heady enough with his football to be able to adjust his game to play a specific, Benteke-centric off-the-ball game one week, and a tick-tick-TACKA style game the next.
This sort of movement is the difference between Neymar's Santos days and his current Barcelona form. Go back and look at the first Messi goal against Arsenal this week--the run Neymar makes between laying it off to and getting it back from Suarez is that goal. And Sterling has that run in his locker. He understands why that movement has to happen and he feels the game well enough to know when that movement has to happen.
Raheem Sterling's got talent and Liverpool have a need. Where Jürgen Klopp would have been perfect is in marrying those two things through the opportunity he gives his players. And Sterling is the sort of player who takes full advantage of his chances, missed opportunity to work with Kloppo notwithstanding.
For Liverpool, the lad went from more or less where Harry Wilson is right now to people grilling him for not being peak Fernando Torres as a lone striker against Stoke City. That is an absurd amount of progression between 17 and 20. But what of his progression between 20 and 21?
Manuel Pellegrini is a Chilean mastermind, but it is hard to argue that the role he has come up with for Sterling is more imaginative than anything Brendan Rodgers was doing, let alone what Klopp would have done. Sterling is on a career pace this season with eight goals and four assists across all competitions, along with some blinding all around performances. Just ask Dynamo Kiev.
But this uptick in production is coming almost in spite of his role within the squad. He's deferring to Silva, Aguero, and Yaya in a way we've never seen before. Not because he's afraid of the stage or intimidated by the level of his teammates--this is a guy who swam in the deep end of Luis Suarez's maniacal football when he was only 17. It's because in City's drone battalion of a lineup, unless your name is Kun Aguero, David Silva, or Yaya Toure, you are obliged to defer and accentuate.
This is perhaps the worst part--if it can be described as such--of watching Sterling's City experience so far. He's hardly stretched tactically anymore. He has his gig, he gets his moments, but he's a part of someone else's show. Brendan Rodgers, for all of his mistakes and shortcomings, put an absolute whale of a burden on Sterling's shoulders every week, and the kid continually rose to the meet the challenge.
Would we expect Klopp to have asked any less? Perhaps less positional ambiguity, but it can be pretty comfortably assumed, for example, that Klopp would have had Sterling connecting on more than just 1.4 tackles per 90 minutes. Especially if he was getting dispossessed nearly twice as much over the same period. Can you imagine Klopp's face? Forget about it.
It's not that Raheem Sterling made the wrong decision to go to City. Aidy Ward did his job. He got his client paid, got him to the most moneybags of moneybags clubs, and now the player is going get the chance to put his great footballing mind together with one of the all time great footballing minds in Pep Guardiola.
And you can bet your last Red cent that Pep will have this kid all over the field, pressing his Jamaican-born ass off, and creating so many chances that Damien Commolli will come out of nowhere to remind everyone how he served a four year old Raheem Sterling a bottle rocket once and just knew he was going to be a special footballer one day.
All we want to do, as we come up on this club's first crack at the lifeline that is silverware this season, is imagine the if. If Jürgen could have been convinced of cutting his sabbatical short. If Sterling could have been convinced to hear the new manager out. And if Aidy Ward could have been convinced to have a permanently meaningful experience with himself. Even if you're not the type to romanticize football over a tall mug of luxuriantly steeped vanilla chamomile on a rainy day, you have to admit: it would have been one hell of a good ride to see Sterling trade Rodgers' heavy petting for Kloppo's bear hugs.