Talented youngsters thrill and terrify their managers in almost equal measure. Take Raheem Sterling: at 17, the Liverpool winger has shown enough pace and trickery to tantalize and torture manager Brendan Rodgers.
Having made a few late substitute appearances last season, Sterling has played three consecutive full matches for Liverpool and enlivened the club with his invention. In the space of less than a week, he has made his England Under-19 debut (in a 3-1 friendly defeat to Germany) and been called up to the senior England squad to face Ukraine in World Cup qualifying. The lengths that England manager Roy Hodgson has gone to assure Rodgers that the youngster will be part of England's senior squad merely to "soak up the atmosphere" are indicative of the G-force exerted by Sterling's momentum.
Rodgers had requested Sterling be left out of consideration for the Under-21s, let alone the senior side. "I have an inherent belief in young players," he told an assortment of the club's supporter-run media last week, but he is also keen to ensure that Sterling maintains his focus. It is probably no coincidence that Sterling has played his way in to a starting place having been given the headmaster treatment by Rodgers during preseason training in the U.S. The manager's admiration of young players comes from their determination to prove themselves -- "a young player will run through a barbed wire fence for you" -- and it is that which he wishes to preserve in Sterling, among others.
The Liverpool manager admitted he will need his young players in order to fill a squad left bare by a badly handled transfer window. But there seemed to be genuine puzzlement and regret when he noted, "If you look at the Premier League and compare it with other European leagues, the percentage of under-21 players is very, very small."
It was a point reprised by England Under-21 manager Stuart Pearce after his team huffed and puffed to a 1-0 win over Norway in a Euro 2013 qualifier on Monday.
"When you look at the squad sizes in the Premier League and the amount of exposure [young players] get ... 23 players met up on day one and six had played for their clubs the day before," he said. "Physically, they find this quite demanding. They're still learning the game, they haven't got a vast amount of experience."
At this point the urge to mention Spain becomes almost irresistible: at the Under-21 World Cup last summer, the Spanish squad included two players who had won the 2010 World Cup and a host of regular starters at club level. Instead, Pearce hopes that playing at the international level will help those he calls up get in to their club sides.
It is not entirely convincing (take a look at the list of players most capped at the Under-21 level, and you'll find a number of players who have never quite fulfilled their early promise: Michael Mancienne, for instance; Tom Huddlestone; David Prutton), but some have certainly made a good case over the course of England's qualifying efforts for being more like James Milner, England's most capped Under-21 and now a regular England international.
Pearce name-checked several of his defenders as he reflected on a 7-1 campaign, chief among them Danny Rose and Steven Caulker. Both are signed to Tottenham Hotspur, but Rose has been loaned to Sunderland and Caulker has watched the start of this season from the bench following a successful spell on loan at Swansea in 2011-12. It is easy to see Caulker getting into the Spurs lineup; he has the same assured stride as defenders such as Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King, and a patience and unflappability that suggests he, rather than William Gallas, ought soon to be forging a partnership with Jan Vertonghen in the center of the Spurs' defense.
Fellow central defender Craig Dawson is also looking more and more convincing as a crucial part of West Bromwich Albion's future -- though it feels unkind to burden a player who was working in a pub five years ago, having abandoned his hopes of playing professional football, with such expectation. Like Caulker he is calm and composed and capable of the kind of perfectly timed tackles that would look brutal if executed by a less accomplished player. His past as an attacking midfielder is evident in the well-placed passes he sprays out from the back and the fact that he is England's top scorer in the U21 Euro 2013 qualifiers.
Rose's chances at Tottenham have perhaps suffered, short term, for his winger's instincts; while the unflappable Benoit Assou-Ekotto is happy to feed Gareth Bale, Rose may often want the same space as the Welshman from which to make an impact. That is not to say that Rose has not developed as a defender, however -- that he was named Player of the Match as England U21s played Norway on Monday seemed to be down as much to his willingness to track back as to his interchanges with the left winger Tom Ince (a former Liverpool youth player that you can expect to hear a lot more about over the next couple of years, whether it is through promotion with Blackpool or a return to a Premier League club). With another converted left back, Kieran Richardson, having left Sunderland in this window, Rose has a chance to establish himself.
Of the seven Premier League players named in Pearce's most recent call-up, three are at Liverpool: Martin Kelly, already settled in to the first team squad at Anfield, Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey. Henderson is captain of England's Under-21s but has yet to feature for Rodgers at Liverpool, despite early signs that the new manager hoped to sculpt the midfielder into his plans.
The problem for Henderson is perhaps not so much "too much, too soon" as "wrong time, wrong place." At Sunderland, before his £20 million ($32.1 million in U.S. dollars) move last summer, he was usually the more cultured half of a central midfield pairing with Lee Cattermole. He was often what made the side tick. When you watch England Under-21s play, you can see that Shelvey has the stronger potential in this regard.
Against Norway, tasked with a more defensive midfield role, he looked out of sorts (while Henderson, asked pretty much just to move the ball on, did a decent enough job). In those games where England had a specialist defensive player -- against Azerbaijan, for instance, Blackburn's Jason Lowe sat back but was injured for the following game -- Shelvey has been released and impressed. When he made his debut for Charlton in 2009, he stood out not just for his bald head but also the dexterity and awareness with which he played that attacking central midfield role; he was a creator and a director, even at 16.
Things happen around him because his distribution is about injecting or maintaining impetus. Shelvey will not stand on his heels and watch the results. In Baku last week, it was hard to believe he had just a handful of caps to his name, or that he was not wearing the armband. His form and reputation have suffered for moves out of his best position (often ending up a makeshift forward at Charlton), but afforded the cover of a player such as Lucas Leiva, Shelvey ought to be considered more than a credible starter for Liverpool.