Tomorrow’s big game against Arsenal at Anfield will not be decided so much by Luis Suarez or Daniel Sturridge, or even by Mesut Ozil for Arsenal. It will be the game Raheem Sterling finally cements his status as a first-team player for Liverpool, or continues his role as mere squad player.
One can only look across to Arsene Wenger’s team to see similarities in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The young Englishman recently recovered from an injury that kept him out for around 4 months, and made his first start in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace last weekend, in which Oxlade-Chamberlain bagged his side’s two goals. Having been deployed in central midfield alongside Mikel Arteta, the Ox went a long way in justifying his manager’s recent assertions that he could be the next Steven Gerrard – quite a claim for a player who is still seen as a winger rather than an actual central midfielder.
Oxlade-Chamberlain will most likely come off the bench on Saturday, in the hope of making a vital contribution midway through the second-half against tiring Liverpool legs, after temporarily stepping out of the shadows of Ozil and Santi Cazorla in his goalscoring return last week. Similarly, Sterling needs to step up to the plate in terms of goals getting and assists.
Liverpool’s young prodigy winger has already matched his goal tally from last season, but Brendan Rodgers will want him to get a couple more before the season’s end, or even simply double last season’s tally. This could be the game for Sterling to do it, and ensure he keeps his place for the season’s run-in.
Regardless of who plays at left-back for Arsenal, one of Kieran Gibbs or Nacho Monreal, Sterling will have the beating of either with his sheer pace. Whether Sterling starts or comes off the bench, his main role will be to stretch Arsenal both vertically and horizontally across the field. He will have to keep his starting position as wide as possible and receive the ball from there, ensuring that Arsenal’s defence and midfield will have to position themselves across the width of the pitch.
At Manchester City, we saw how Sterling’s diagonal runs infield, starting wide, meant he managed to lose his marker and provide an option for Philipp Coutinho or even Luis Suarez’s through balls. This time though, Sterling will have to stay wide and make runs on the outside of Arsenal’s left-back and around Arsenal’s defence, not inside runs in between the channels. This way, Arsenal’s defence and midfield will also have to sit slightly deeper to try to nullify Sterling’s pace and runs beyond their defence.
Arsenal’s overall team shape will thus be pushed slightly deeper as well, giving Liverpool that bit more space to operate with in their attempts to play out from the back and find either Suarez or Daniel Sturridge. The more times Suarez and Sturridge has the ball, the higher the probability either will work their magic (with each other or individually) and fire shots at goal, hopefully finding the net more often than not.
In a game of such magnitude against two top-class teams, such tiny margins are the game deciders. And this could be the one decided by how Rodgers utilises Sterling.