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The Weight of Expectations

Unknown Thursday, November 1, 2012 , ,
Every time Raheem Sterling gets near the ball there’s instantly a shift in mood.  It might be barely perceptible, but even so the rising expectation is unmistakeable and un-missable.  When his speed and trickery then takes him past a defender, you can see the fans shifting to the edge of their seats, eagerly expecting further magic by the talented teen.

Sometimes what he tries comes off; sometimes it doesn’t. Occasionally he is overly ambitious, keeping hold of the ball when he should release it. Often he’ll create an opportunity that wasn’t there before, offering glimpses of pure talent that keep the excitement alive.

At least for now.  Eventually, however, there will come a period when those lost balls won’t  be written off as easily.  The good moves will be forgotten whilst the bad ones remembered.  For that is how it has always been and that is how it will always be.

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Sterling has been luckier than most in that he has come into a side struggling for creativity and been the one to provide sparks of brilliance.  He already has a bit of goodwill in store.

Yet the danger remains.  Within the space of a few weeks Sterling has gone from someone who is considered promising to a regular in the first team.  His performances have more than justified that transition but it bears remembering that he is still seventeen years old; sooner or later there will be a dip in his form.

When that happens, it will be interesting to see how he reacts.  It will be just as ineresting to see how Liverpool react.  Hopefully it will come at a stage where there is the luxury to allow him to move away from the spotlight and rediscover his form at his own pace.

That kind of luxury wasn’t afforded to Emiliano Insua.  By the time he left Liverpool, Insua was put forward as a prime example of the decline in quality within the squad; a player who wasn’t good enough but who was playing regularly.

Such a verdict was at odds with the one drawn just a few months earlier when he had first made it into the Liverpool team.  Then, his confidence when moving with the ball had been lauded as Insua was praised for being a thoroughly modern left back who was at ease when it came to supporting the attack.

What this initial analysis missed was his shortcomings as a defender. This was an area that he needed to work on but which in the beginning wasn’t really noticed.  Yet the more he played, the more he suffered. And, as a result, the more people picked up on it.

At that stage he needed to make a step backwards so as to rediscover his confidence whilst working to improve his positioning.  Yet Liverpool’s shortcomings in his role meant that he couldn’t really get this.  So Insua kept on playing and kept on struggling.  As the weight of expectations grew heavier on Insua’s shoulder, he sank ever deeper, so much that by the end Liverpool couldn’t give him away for free.

Eventually Insua would re-emerge as a fairly effective left-back at Sporting Lisbon, proving that although not as good as some had initially labelled him, he was far from the useless player many had written him off to be.

Perhaps more importantly to the narrative of this piece, Insua should be seen as a very important lesson on the danger of expecting young players to perform to the level, and with the consistency, of experienced ones.  His story, and that of many others, shows that whilst players need to play to develop, it is possible that they get to play too much for their own good.

This danger is further heightened by the amount of exposure Liverpool’s young players are getting.  With most Under 18, Next Gen and Under 21 games being televised, players are getting judged at an age when they are still developing. This point was touched upon by Steven Gerrard in Episode 2 of Being: Liverpool:

“The difference between when I was at the academy from now is that the fans already know about the kids at the academy. They watch them on the TV whereas when I was coming through no one knew anything about me, it was a surprise. Which helped as there was no pressure, there’s more pressure on the kids now as people are already aware of them before they get close to the first team. It is even more difficult now to get close to the first team.”

Difficult is, possibly, too mild a term.  Players are judged – often harshly and against unrealistic standards – far too early and are labelled well before they get anywhere near the first team.  Sadly such labels can be extremely difficult to shake off.

They don’t even have to be negative ones to hamper a player’s development.  A player who is scoring regularly for the U18s will be expected to keep that rhythm when he moves to a higher level.  If not, he will be tagged as someone who isn’t good enough for that level when in truth it might simply be down to a natural adaptation process.

Players who would otherwise be learning and playing in front of a handful of spectators suddenly are being asked to do so in front of a worldwide audience.  The expectations at each step are becoming increasingly harder to shoulder.

This article originally appeared on the 3rd of October 2012 on the Tomkins Times.

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