Both Englishmen are attackers who possess great skill, speed, and tenacity but which of the two will be England manager Roy Hodgson’s first choice down the line?
Sterling is just 18 years old and the younger of the two – he earned his first call up to the England squad in September against Ukraine and made his senior debut for his country as a substitute against Sweden in November.
Zaha was called up for England in November after some impressive displays for Crystal Palace where he is now on loan from Manchester United who secured his future services in January.
The 20-year-old also made his senior England debut against Sweden in November and in fact came as a substitute to replace Sterling in the 83rd minute of the friendly.
Sterling began his career as a youth academy player for Queen’s Park Rangers before moving to Liverpool in 2010. He’s made 38 appearances for the Reds so far after making his first-team debut last season. He has scored two goals and has been deployed as a winger predominantly.
This season he broke through and immediately introduced himself as one of the most exciting players of his generation, flourishing under new manager Brendan Rodgers.
Meanwhile Zaha had been working his way up through the ranks at Championship side Crystal Palace. Since 2010 he has been learning his trade diligently and this season he has applied it to devastating affect under Ian Holloway.
Zaha has made 134 first-team appearances for Palace over the last four seasons and has scored 16 goals.
As wide forwards as both most frequently operate, their assists are a crucial part of their game. Sterling has made 6 goals for Liverpool, and Zaha 11 for Palace. Both are exceptionally tenacious in their attacking play. Similarly to Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain they are both bursting with energy when they get the ball.
They’re dynamic and tricky and, as young players often do, they play with no fear. They thrive on the fact they are, to the opposition, something of an unknown quantity – they are unpredictable and eager to impress.
Sterling has been a revelation at Anfield, especially in the first half of this season – his exceptional technical ability has made him a standout performer for Rodgers who has shown great faith in trusting his youngsters to do a job this season.
Sterling is vivacious and hungry – he wants the ball and he has an unequivocal desire to show what he can do. This quality, his impatience, is perhaps something as he matures he will need to learn to control and with experience he must learn the discipline to go with his talent.
There are times when his manager will require control and calmness and, whilst his attitude cannot be faulted, he must learn tactically to keep a cool head and focus on what’s best for the team collectively.
Zaha has undoubtedly been one of the Championship’s best this term – he, like Sterling, is hungry and keen to please. He has been well developed and managed under Holloway who has kept him grounded and focuses on his development, amidst all the media attention and expectation.
You can tell his attitude is exemplary – England U21 coach Stuart Pearce commented recently that Zaha hasn’t been affected by achieving a move to United and all the attention and scrutiny that entails. He is obviously training hard and focusing on his development which, for any young player, is exactly what he needs to do to improve.
Potential is one thing but fulfilment of it requires hard work, sacrifice, focus, and commitment. Likewise, talent is part of success but perseverance and discipline are oftentimes more important.
Between the two of them, Roy Hodgson has fireworks at his disposal. They will, as time goes on, I’m sure become real weapons in his England arsenal as he prepares for World Cup 2014.
Zaha is the elder and it shows – it remains to be seen how Sterling develops over the next couple of years. Sir Alex Ferguson bought Zaha because it is evident he is on his way to becoming a world-class forward but Sterling still has a lot to prove. He must remember that he doesn’t need to prove it all at once; consistency is what he should be aiming for in his performances for Liverpool.
The key may prove to be how each of them is managed – Zaha surely couldn’t possibly hope to be in safer hands than Ferguson. He’s far too long in the tooth to put up with any prima-donna melodrama and he will be mindful of Zaha’s fitness and well being.
One would hope Rodgers will offer much the same in terms of a mentor for Sterling but I have a feeling the Reds youngster has within his character an edge of disregard which makes his game so refreshingly fearless but he must be kept a close eye on to ensure he listens, learns and achieves.