In most of the articles written about Manchester United’s 3-0 victory over Liverpool, much has been made of the marked difference in the quality of the two teams’ finishing. Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata, all seasoned goalscorers of proven pedigree in this league, made sure that Manchester United, still so perilously lopsided as a team, finished the afternoon victorious. David de Gea, the man of the match for many, made sure that Liverpool trudged off the pitch dejected, curling up like a collection of salted slugs, feeling a world-and-a-half away from their title-challenging potency of last season. Most dejected of all perhaps was Raheem Sterling, still a lad, and upon whom Liverpool has placed a decidedly unreasonable amount of pressure.
He started as Liverpool’s most advanced attacker against United, a false 9, if one had to assign a number to it. He showed timidity and indecisiveness in front of the imperious de Gea, which was ill-fitting because he was playing well in almost every other aspect; he was moving with intelligence and slipperiness, interchanging well with Adam Lallana and Phillipe Coutinho, and creating openings for himself. These openings, however, he was frustratingly reluctant to take, and the impression that the eventual 3-0 score line gave was wholly unrepresentative of how many chances Liverpool actually had. They had quite a few, a by-product of United’s generous defence, but wasted them all.
But the atmosphere has changed dramatically at Anfield, obviously. And it seems unfair to expect the players who played well last season, like Sterling, to just carry on as if nothing has happened. It’s difficult to assess just how having the safety net of Luis Suarez’s (and Daniel Sturridge’s) goals affected the rest of the team, but the suspicion is that it would be safer to over-estimate the damage caused by its absence. Sterling is 19, and has only one and a half good seasons under his belt in the top flight. He was the adorable, impossibly talented third member of Liverpool’s seductive boy band last season. They crooned together, and we all swooned, their flowing harmonious cadence disguising the fact that Kolo and the Bandettes were stuffing up the backing song. But now little Raheem stands alone on the stage, trying in broken voice to sing the three vocal parts himself, as Dejan Lovren fumbles conspicuously over his chords, and Simon Mignolet waits with cymbals poised, to enter inevitably off-cue.
When you aren’t the focal point of every Scouser’s hopes and dreams, especially at 19, you tend to play with more freedom, with less nervous tension, because the weight of expectation is light and easily shouldered. Sterling flourished as the cherry on top of the Liverpool title-challenge cake, given a limited mandate; simply to play. He was moved around by Rodgers, from wing to wing, to central midfield, then as a trequartista. He had freedom, and it breathed a handsome confidence though his diminutive frame. When it comes to a skill like finishing, confidence is king; nerves and apprehension are like a toxic poison. Last season, if a chance was missed (as it occasionally was by Sterling), he knew that either he, Suarez or Sturridge would likely be given another to put away before the game was over. Now every miss strikes a dull chord, feels immeasurably more wasteful, because so often it is only Sterling carrying the brunt of the attacking duties.
The blame for this inadvertent marginalisation of Raheem Sterling falls squarely on the shoulders of his manager. Brendan Rodgers has badly mismanaged Steven Gerrard’s decline, and failed to reinforce after the loss of Suarez. In Balotelli and Lambert, not only did he patently not replace the 30 or so goals Suarez took with him to Barcelona, but he also brought in two players not known for leading by relentless, physical example, which was one of Suarez’s most visible virtues. Lambert, too old and slow, and whose laboured, if well-intentioned, trundling does little to inspire his team mates, can’t be blamed for this known shortcoming. Balotelli, however, can be blamed, as can Rodgers for buying him, and the Italian’s moody shiftlessness seems to sap the team morale; he is the anti-Suarez in this regard.
What has resulted is a dearth of inspiring individuals in tough games (save the odd Gerrard free kick) and an even more damaging lack of goals. So Liverpool have lost games, and now that the chips are down, they’re all looking for a totem-player to rally behind. As their desperate eyes scan anxiously, all they can see is empty, mournful void. So, trying to solve the problem, they’ve thrown Sterling down into that lonely place, hoping he can illuminate it for them. The psychological effect of this would be hard to survive for even the most seasoned and confident of players, let alone a 19 year old, already struggling under the immense pressure of club and country.