Ahead of tonight’s NextGen series semi-final against Ajax, Michael Sweeting discusses two of the top talents in Rodolfo Borrell’s under-19’s side, winger Raheem Sterling and midfielder Suso.
Liverpool fans are understandably excited thesedays about the emergence of the Academy as a feasible solution to some of our first team problems. During yesterdays Merseyside derby we had five players in the squad straight from Kirkby – Gerrard, Carragher, Kelly, Spearing and Flanagan – however the latter three look like they will not be the end of the talent for another ten years as previously seen with the likes of Jack Robinson, Andre Wisdom, Conor Coady, Stephen Sama, Ryan McLaughlin, Jordan Ibe… the list goes on, and they all have first team potential. It is truly exciting times, but for most fans they know of two names, two of the most prodigious talents ever to come through the Academy… Raheem Sterling and Suso. Therefore, the question is, who should make their debut first?
Suso arrived at the club three years ago and was immediately put under the spotlight as he put in a man of the match performance in a reserve team pre-season friendly aged only 15. He appeared to have everything; magical touch, incredible vision, passing range of Xabi Alonso and a shot like Gerrard. Suso went straight back out to Cadiz on loan until he was old enough to gain a permit to complete the transfer and then came straight into the Liverpool under 18s team, impressing immediately with his composure and intelligence and earning himself promotion to the reserves after only a few months. Liverpool had struck gold and nothing could stop the boy’s development… Or so it seemed. Suso was given a new role, as part of his development, to play on the right hand side of midfield which involved much more of the ‘dirty’ side of the game. Suso seemed lost. For months his form dropped off and the one time prodigy seemed a forgotten talent as others like Sterling, Morgan and Wisdom came to the fore.
The turning point for Suso was ironically a sending off. Playing once again on the right hand side, Suso appeared to be much more involved than in previous months, notably his tracking back had improved dramatically and his confidence in this new position was beginning to grow. Unfortunately, as is the way with such things, Suso received a straight red card for an innocuous challenge after tracking back brilliantly against Manchester United’s own prodigy Paul Pogba. Upon returning from suspension, Suso has been back to his sparkling best, seemingly now at home on the right hand side he cuts in on his left foot and scores goals for fun, such as his goal against Wigan Athletic where he turned Patrick van Aanholt – an aspiring Chelsea reserve team player – inside out before thumping the ball into the top left hand corner.
Raheem Sterling, who turned 17 in December, also arrived at the club three years ago from Queens Park Rangers and spent his first six months with the Liverpool under 16s before stepping up and scoring in the mini mini derby aged 15. Earning a reputation as a speed demon he whizzed his way through the youth ranks and into the reserve team by the age of 16 where, similar to Suso, he was asked to play a new position – this time out on the left hand side – and, similar to Suso, Sterling struggled to make meaningful impact and his form tailed away, though he was still a threat due to his outright pace, something was missing from Raheem’s game and wouldn’t come back for over six months. Confidence shot, Sterling started missing every one on one situation he came into and then even more worryingly, he started to not be able to beat his full back.
Perhaps it was actually Suso’s upturn in form that kickstarted Sterling but all of a sudden he has started to find his feet, and his form again. Two stunning performances against Everton reserves had Liverpool fans again pushing the agenda of getting Sterling on the teamsheet, dreaming of a new Robbie Fowler or *shudder* Michael Owen.
Who is ready for the first team? In my humble opinion, Suso is the candidate to make his first team debut this season. Being a year older, with less media hype he has the composure and level headedness needed to become the first attacking player since Owen to establish himself after coming through Kirkby Academy. Sterling is an incredible talent but rumours about his off field activities and lack of composure in front of goal lead me to believe that he is still just a kid in his head. After going through a torrid time adjusting to the standard needed at reserve team level, let’s let the boy enjoy it for a while then push him on either next season or the season after. Suso has overcome his personal loss of form but now looks to have outgrown reserve team football, we need to let him know there is a path to Anfield, or we risk losing him.
Let Sterling enjoy being a boy. Suso’s ready to be a man.
Liverpool vs Ajax in the NextGen semi-final kicks off at 7pm tonight, at St. Helens’ Langtree Park Stadium.
Tickets are just £5 for adults, £2 for concessions. You can pay on the gate.