A young talent emerges. It turns out he’s not just good, but very good. Other employers start to sniff around. The young talent starts negotiating for more pay. It’s not an unfamiliar story, nor should it be a shocking one; in a sense it lies at the heart of the capitalist ideal. And yet Raheem Sterling’s contract negotiations have prompted such an outcry that the issue overshadows Saturday’s meeting between Arsenal and Liverpool at the Emirates.
For Liverpool, this feels like a final chance. It trails Manchester United in fourth by five points and, although United must still play Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal this season, it’s hard to see how an eight-point gap could be overturned in the final seven games of the season. Liverpool, simply, must not lose.
Arsenal, a further point clear of Liverpool, is enjoying a familiar spring surge and, while exceptionally unlikely, it’s not completely impossible that with wins in its next two games, it could go into the home league game against league-leader Chelsea in three weeks with slim hopes of the title still alive. Both Liverpool and Arsenal have enjoyed remarkable runs of form over the past three to four months, but while Arsenal, seemingly for the first time in years, had a full squad in training this week–albeit with Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Debuchy, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Abou Diaby and Danny Welbeck unlikely to be fit enough to start on Saturday–the sense is that at this crucial stage of the season the momentum has begun to turn against Liverpool.
Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel are both suspended after stamps in the defeat to Manchester United, while the issue of Sterling is a troublesome one. There have been leaks on both sides, with Sterling going wholly off-message this week to explain his side of the story in an interview with the BBC that had not been authorized by the club. Liverpool fans, understandably, want him to stay, but there are ramifications beyond Anfield.
Liverpool is the second-most successful side in the history of English football, with 18 league titles, and tied for being the third-most successful side in terms of European Cups/Champions League victories with five, but it is not, by the standards of modern football, rich. This is the wider battle being fought–it’s the one also being waged by Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund: if a great traditional club with an innovative manager cannot hold on to its best players, if the lure of the salaries the SuperClubs can offer is too great, then football at the highest level really is the preserve of a cartel of perhaps half a dozen teams.
To lose Luis Suarez last summer could be explained away because of his turbulent career in England and because of the lure of Barcelona to those brought up in a Hispanic culture. To lose Sterling, who joined Liverpool from Queens Park Rangers when he was 15, would be a crushing blow, casting an air of futility over all the achievements of the past two years.
Liverpool offered Sterling a contract worth £100,000 a week, tripling the deal he had been on, but the 20-year-old has rejected that, with various whispers suggesting he has been offered £180,000 a week elsewhere (although, of course, it’s very easy for Liverpool’s rivals to ferment discontent by letting such stories drift into the public domain).
“Players now may look to later in their career and their life,” Rodgers said this week. “But I can only focus on here, on Liverpool and what is best for him and now. He’s a very talented young footballer hopefully on his way to that level. We think that will be best for him here, and we will work hard to ensure he stays. I can only focus on the importance he has for us, and he’s made himself very important over the last two and a half years. This is a young team still developing and over the years will be challenging and improving.”
Sterling has acknowledged that Rodgers’s willingness to give youth its chance has been central to his development (the habit of top clubs of stock-piling promising young English talent and barely playing them is a major problem, as evidenced by the fates of, say, Adam Johnson, Jack Rodwell, Micah Richards and Scott Sinclair at Manchester City, although that club is far from the only guilty party), but whether the lure of continuing to work with the him outweighs the potential rewards available elsewhere is far from clear.
The role of Sterling’s agent, Aidy Ward, who has seemingly been urging a move, may be decisive. The best way for Liverpool to persuade Sterling to stay, perhaps, would be to finish the season strongly and qualify for the Champions League next season, which would offer not only evidence of Liverpool’s quality, but might also release further funds for squad-strengthening. Liverpool’s resurgence over the past four months, going unbeaten in 13 league games before defeat to United a week gone Sunday, has been highly impressive, but it may not be enough.
The next six weeks could be vital not just to Liverpool’s season but to the future of the Rodgers’s project.