Raheem Sterling is in the best form of his career. Under Pep Guardiola, Sterling is a vital part of Manchester City’s so-far-dominant machine, and is enjoying his most productive season in front of goal. He’s a player who is taking his game to a new level. By Jamie Braidwood
It hasn’t always been easy, but Raheem Sterling now looks like a player who is taking his game to the next level. By all means his most recent performance, in Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Arsenal, was below the high standards he has so far set himself this season, and exhibited the frustrating side of Sterling’s game. His final ball in key moments was wasteful but even then, the winger looked dangerous throughout and won the penalty for City’s second goal.
We’re only in November but already Sterling is a just goal away from equalling his best scoring season. The 22-year-old has now hit double figures for goals in all competitions in each of the past five seasons, but he has never before scored more than 11. He’s already on 10, including seven goals in only nine Premier League appearances, and it won’t be a surprise to see him score at least 20 across all competitions this campaign.
It has been an extraordinary, if not unsurprising, transformation. It was only a couple of months ago that the Englishman was linked with a move away from Manchester, as part of deal that would have seen him swap places with Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal. The move never materialised. Sterling was far too valuable to City boss Pep Guardiola who, according to reports, didn’t consider a deal for even a moment.
The show of faith must have been a huge boost to Sterling’s confidence. City had paid £50 million for the then 20-year-old in the summer of 2015 but in the two seasons that followed, only saw glimpses of the player that exploded onto the scene with Liverpool during their memorable 2013-14 season, and which saw Sterling named Europe’s Golden Boy, a prize currently held by PSG’s Kylian M’bappe.
Ever since the move, Sterling has been the subject to a lot of, often unfair, criticism. He has been labelled as greedy, lazy and spoilt, has been vilified by tabloids and has been singled out by England fans following poor team performances. Of course, Sterling has made his mistakes, but show me an 18 or 19-year-old boy who hasn’t. Unlike 99.9% of males his age, Sterling has not been afforded to opportunity to have a normal journey into adulthood.
Under Guardiola, Sterling looks like he has matured into the player he promised to be. The winger, who has operated on the right this season, is a highly intelligent footballer who operates best when he is surrounded by other quality players. It is no surprise that before this season, Sterling’s best run of form came at Liverpool when he operated behind Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, two masters of space and movement.
At City, Sterling is surrounded by some of the finest brains in the business, most notably Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva. His speed of thought and electric pace allows him to get behind opposition defences time and time again. Admittedly, his finishing or final pass is often under-par. Sterling looks best when he doesn’t have too much time to think about what he is doing. He is an instinctive footballer, and in some ways finisher, who often gets overwhelmed by a situation when he has too much time. This could be seen on Sunday when he horribly screwed up a simple square ball to Leroy Sane that would have resulted in an open goal.
Overall though, Sterling’s numbers prove he is getting there. We are currently watching a young man who is settled, appreciated and comfortable with his position in his team. We are watching a player who is taking his game to a new level and is living up to his potential, justifying that £50m price tag in the process.
Ultimately, people will continue to be bitter about Sterling. He will continue to be booed upon his return to Anfield and by the fans who take issue with the way he treated the club and manager who gave him his chance, but the acrimony only comes from a place of jealousy and regret. But if Sterling did leave Liverpool to become a better player, at least that is what he’s now doing. And the sky’s the limit.