"I said when I first came here, I won't judge people on their status or what they've done, it's about what I see now in front of me, and [Sterling's] a young player who's improved every single day since I came in here."
"He was a player who played on his own, in the one v one. You look at him now, playing for the team, his tactical understanding playing against a really experienced player. He was blocking the line of pass, he was pressing at the right time, he was coming back to block the lines inside."
– Brendan Rodgers after the Manchester City match
Sunderland: 33/35 (94%) [most accurate in the side]
Arsenal: 27/31 (87%)
City: 24/30 (80%)
Sunderland: 16/16 (100%) [most accurate in the side]
Arsenal: 17/20 (85%)
City: 13/16 (81%)
Sunderland: 2 (1 off-target, 1 blocked)
Arsenal: 1 (off-target)
Sunderland: 4 [joint most created in the side]
Sunderland: 5/11 [joint most successful take-ons in the side]
Sunderland: 5/5 [most successful tackles in the side]
Admittedly, Sunderland were weaker opposition than either City or Arsenal, even if the result doesn't necessarily show it. Regardless, that Sterling's output has improved in each successive start can't be overlooked.
Each link goes to the StatsZone chalkboard for that match, but I embedded the images for the categories I thought most relevant. His passes show he was more involved in the build-up, coming inside more often even though he was a right-footer playing on the right. Similar goes for the 'passes received' category, coming inside and deeper to make himself more available but also stretching play by getting the ball near the penalty box more often. He attempted and completed far more take-ons than in his two previous league starts, more of which took place directly outside the penalty box. And his tackles chalkboard against Sunderland is massively impressive for a winger, in his own half and the opposition's, let alone a 17-year-old winger.
Everything Noel wrote two weeks ago still applies. He is too young to start every single game without risking his future, too young to be relied upon in match after match. However, his improvement in each match has been demonstrable, important, and demonstrably important. He's gotten better in almost every statistical category from City to Arsenal to Sunderland.
He's come a long way from "There are very few players in the world who get into a Premier League team at 17, never mind a top club. [Sterling] has certainly shown qualities and we'll decide over the next few weeks whether he stays and he's involved now or if he goes for a loan period." Which was said by Rodgers in mid-July, just before Liverpool's first preseason match.
On Saturday, Sterling was Liverpool's most accurate passer, overall and in the final third, and made the most successful tackles (both Gerrard and Kelly attempted more, but each had four successful). He and Suarez each created four chances and completed five successful dribbles – the most in the Liverpool team. Sterling suffered seven fouls, four more than the second most-fouled player. And three of those seven fouls came in the last ten minutes, including Seb Larsson's yellow card – Sunderland's only yellow card of the match – evidence of the home side's increasing desperation.
It was also heartening to see him do all this on the right side of the pitch. Both he and Borini have been far better on the left in previous matches; both had struggled to replicate their better moments on the opposite flank. Until Saturday, Downing arguably had been Liverpool's most-effective right winger.
I cannot emphasize the "we can't get carried away" mantra hard enough. But I also cannot help but express my surprise and joy at Sterling's accelerated development.