Look, they aren’t broken, okay? That’s something to clear up, as pointless as it may be to flash that from the lighthouse for a media essentially drowning in its own must-say-something-extreme-by-5pm sick.
John Stones, who has that same innately mobile, straight-backed look as Rio Ferdinand and Thiago Silva and Jaap Stam, and a pretty uncanny ability before he got the fear of money put in him to stick his leg into exactly the right-timed place, has not – by the power of the grim English desire to see it all turn out to be a fuss about nothing – been wiped clean of his talent. Raheem Sterling, unfortunately, never had that much actual diamond-dust talent, so he’s a different case.
If you’re aged between about 18 and 24, the ages when the real ‘who am I?’ stuff starts to happen, and someone says ‘whoever you are lad, I’m paying £45million for it’, it messes you up. It freezes you, surely. We can tell ourselves that footballers develop some sort of insulating shield against the numbers swirling around them that lets them just roll their eyes and say ‘football, eh?’ but I just don’t buy it.
On the one hand, we’re pretty all in on the image of Premier League players, and English ones particularly, being a void of enlightened perspective, given that they never got taught how to arrive at one, getting “keep it tight John, tight to him, tight to him John” yelled at them in lieu of an education.
And on the other, we somehow expect them not to turn into rabbits in the headlights when they recall, after another misplaced backpass or scuffed dribble, that there’s this huge, clanking price tag hanging off their ankle.
There must be such a developmental difference between making your mistakes and learning your game when the crowd is directing not much in your direction beyond goodwill at your successes and sympathy to your failings, and when that same crowd is now expectant – as people around numbers like £45million can only be – that you’re something a long way beyond what you actually are.
By no fault of their own, Sterling and Stones automatically became fakes when transferred. And they play like that, like they both need to shed their skins, pronto. What they both required (another two seasons minimum to discover and embed what their elite-level playing ability felt like, including its vulnerabilities and limitations) is no longer available, at least not at a regular speed.
The flaws of both, of which we as football fans are fully aware, are now something to be shied away from, gulped down in the moans and jeers of the crowd, and ultimately feared. And repeated. Though they may be assured by their conscientious manager that all of the peripheral stuff is just noise, that they do indeed have time on their side, it simply isn’t true.
It should be. But if anyone thought there wouldn’t be real-world consequences to the fantasy price-tags being branded on these players, then they really have bought into the parallel universe of silly money.
For now, they’re both playing exactly as you’d expect players who’ve had an easy, healthy relationship with their ability removed from them would play – keep it tight, play as close to the chest as possible, nothing but the basics, nothing that risks errors. All the things that make them look like a waste of money, and so exacerbate the problem.
John Stones looks like he’s not that far away from deciding he never liked dribbling in the first place. Sterling, whose star moments – the drag-back and finish vs. Man City, and the belter vs. Norwich, both for Liverpool – were born of flair rather than technique, needs to be thinking about nothing at all except the wind in his sails, if he’s to look true Premier League class. If he’s thinking, as it appears he is, that he must force his pretty Southampton-level attacking talents into an effective copy of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, it may be why he’s found the composure to contribute one important goal all season, against Arsenal midway through December.
Development comes from learning you could do more than you thought you could, from trying a little creativity and seeing where it takes you. Both of them have been put in a kind of emotional anti-state to testing those boundaries.
But, football being unpredictable, and the untapped internal resources of its players being far beyond the gaze of any keyboard-pundit such as I, there may be life still at the top, for John Stones at least. A blood-and-thunder collection of random occurrences in a Champion League quarter-final, an opponent winding him up sufficiently that he can’t help but throw the shackles off and play as he actually is, rather than what he’s supposed to be – that could do it.
For Sterling, there seems eventually only one precursor: Andy Carroll. who is in possession of quite a lot of impressive attributes, if not ones that can survive the diamond-drill of expectation, and at his natural level can seem completely unplayable, as Sterling occasionally can and still could in different settings.
It’s just a painfully moronic thing, that long term, these clubs are achieving precisely the opposite of their intentions by paying these amounts for young players. Rather than buying access to talent, they’re clipping its wings with platinum shears. But hey, what could be better than money eh, the more the better, surely?
It’s a beautiful irony that in among these clogging, panicky £45million clipped-wings kids, occasionally free-as-a-bird Kelechi Iheanacho waltzes in to see, just for the pure enjoyment of discovery, whether he can add to that ridiculous goals-to-shots ratio.
Toby Sprigings – follow him on Twitter here