It is extremely difficult for us normal folk to truly comprehend, to truly understand Premier League player wages these days. The new bumper television deal has mushroomed finances in the game to such an extent that it has become extremely hard to know what exactly fair pay really is any more. Sums of up to £300,000 are paid out on a weekly basis to the best – or most hyped-up – players, and fans constantly bemoan the wasted money every time a pass goes astray.
No doubt about it, there would be better ways to spend £5.2bn than helping to fund Radamel Falcao’s luxurious lifestyle, but the players are often made to take the blame for a club’s willingness to fork out big money for their services, when surely anybody would accept the best wage possible if it was offered to you, whatever the industry.
On Monday, it was reported by the Mail that Raheem Sterling will, however, reject a contract renewal with Liverpool even if he is offered the stratospheric sum of £180,000 a week, opting instead to assess his options in the summer.
The immediate reaction is one of indignation: how can a 20-year-old, who owes so much of his wonderful development to the Anfield club, and is thus indebted to them, be so outlandishly self-centred? How can he place his value to the team at such a lofty height that he feels able to reject those advances, when so few of the club’s fans would agree that he is worth it?
Well, in fairness to Sterling, he is one of the planet’s most exciting young talents and has played a vital role both in last season’s unprecedented title charge and this season’s resurgent recovery after Luis Suarez’s departure and Daniel Sturridge’s injury. To thus consider himself integral to the team seems fair, and the money at the top of the game is skyrocketing by the season, so to expect a lot of it also makes sense.
The issue for Sterling is rather the uncertainty surrounding his position. Clearly, Sterling’s game is most suited to playing high up the pitch. According to WhoScored’s statistically calculated characteristic system, Sterling’s strengths lie in dribbling, key passes (chance creation) and finishing, while aerial duels and crossing are considered weaknesses. Hardly the attributes one would want in a wing-back with considerable defensive responsibility, one might suggest?
Be it as punishment for his reported reluctance to sign a new deal or merely – and more likely – manager Brendan Rodgers’ attempts to get the most from the vast array of attacking players at his disposal, Sterling is seemingly aggrieved at the situation. He clearly feels he should be prioritised and played as part of the attacking trident in Liverpool’s 3-4-3.
He has played no fewer than 8 different roles across his 27 Premier League starts this season, and a quick look at his WhoScored rating in each position hints that his problems with playing deeper may have cause. He has produced his worst two performances of the season when playing in a wing-back role, scoring 6.05 at Newcastle and 5.91 in the recent home defeat to Manchester Untied. An average of 6.53 (increased only by the 7.63 he registered at home to lowly Burnley) is worse than he manages in any other position. Sterling should be an immediate threat to the opponents’ goal when he is in possession, and when playing at wing-back he has not managed a single goal or assist, while his key passes drop to 1.0 per game from a seasonal average of 2.2, shots per game plummet to 0.3 from an average of 2.4 and his dribbles reduce to 1.3 per game from 3.0. That attacking threat is almost eliminated.
He fares best in a left-sided attacking midfield berth (8.10 WhoScored rating) or centrally (8.07), positions in which he is afforded more freedom to roam and find space to operate. When given license to do just that, Sterling can be absolutely devastating. See his performance for England on Friday, in which he scored a perfect 10 from WhoScored with a goal and an assist, also completing more dribbles (11) than either the whole Lithuania team (9) or the rest of his teammates as a whole (9). Hodgson has stated that he believes Sterling to be playing better for his country than his club, and the player’s position is a key factor in that.
Naturally, his attacking stats improve playing further up the pitch: he scores and assists more, and is generally a greater threat. But there is more to it than just that. Sterling is one of the most effective attackers when it comes to harrying defenders, having won possession in the attacking third the most times in the Premier League since the start of last season (46). Adam Lallana (39) and Philippe Coutinho (38) come close, but Sterling still stands out.
Those two players are likely to be the reason, along with Sturridge, that Sterling would ever not be included in Liverpool’s front three, but while Sterling leads the club for goals (7), assists (6), final third possession gains (22) and WhoScored rating (7.36) this season, there is little reason to sacrifice any of his game.
He is undoubtedly of extreme value to Liverpool already, and in that sense they should fear him running his contract down or leaving yet sooner. Sterling is justified in wanting to play in a position that he is most suited to and thus one can understand his reluctance to sign a new contract, but Liverpool recovered from the loss of Suarez and would survive were Sterling to depart. £180,000 is – one would think – still a lot of money, even in the riches of the Premier League, and quite whether Sterling is worth that much to Liverpool is highly questionable.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings. You can follow all the scores, statistics, live player and team ratings with the new free-to-download WhoScored iOS app