At the age of 22, Raheem Sterling remains a player whose potential offers so much hope for the future of the English game. Since emerging as a talent in the youth ranks at Queens Park Rangers, he has stood out as a special sort of player.
Confident and clever on the ball, he is an uncanny dribbler who shines in tight spaces and one-on-one situations – exactly the sort of player prized by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers and current Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.
Sterling was one of the key players in the last season in which the Reds came close to clinching the Premier League title, playing behind Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, only to fall short. In 2015, the then 20-year-old winger moved to the Etihad for a British record fee.
Bridges were burned through the manner in which he departed Anfield, a process it seemed Barcelona target Philippe Coutinho would replicated this summer.
But at City, Sterling found what he was looking for, and while an unsympathetic press may have sought to downplay his impact under Manuel Pellegrini, Sterling was the club’s top scorer in the Champions League in 2015/16.
Only David Silva created more chances for City in Europe’s top level competition last season, what is more. Yet due to his involvement in a disappointing summer from England at Euro 2016, the skepticism and dismissals continued unabated.
Guardiola picked up the phone to tell the winger to put the tournament behind himself and ready himself for the challenge of playing for the former head coach of Barcelona, and the manager who helped to guide Lionel Messi to greatness. Kevin De Bruyne was the only player to make more appearances for the Catalan across all competitions in the 2016/17 season. He played in 47 matches, just one less than the Belgian.
Following a summer that saw Monaco midfielder Bernardo Silva arrive at the Eithad to further swell the ranks of creators and dribblers at the club, Sterling faces more competition for game time than ever, but he has a role to play – as was underlined by his equaliser off the bench to save City’s blushes in their first home game of the season against Everton.
However, he is no longer the player he was under Rodgers at Liverpool. Below are four things that Sterling is now doing differently in a City shirt playing for Guardiola, and whether he has improved since leaving Anfield.
1. Different positions
In his best season of football at Liverpool, Sterling played at the tip of a midfield diamond behind Sturridge and Suarez, and alongside the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva and Steven Gerrard.
Given his dazzling ability to take the ball past opponents, it was a position that offered the Englishman options. Sterling could go either way, running at defenders to get into the box or pull wide to try and stretch teams and warp their shape to open up the final third.
City have used him as a more orthodox winger. During his three-year reign at Bayern Munich, Guardiola came to rely on the trickery and spontaneity of wide players such as Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa to dominate the individual battles and elaborate upon the usually strict instruction of his game plan.
Leroy Sane and Sterling are the two most obvious picks for the Catalan to deploy down the flanks to pin opposition full-backs and get in behind defences, albeit with the freedom to roam and come inside in the final third of the pitch. It is a role that isn’t a million miles away from the role he was charged with mastering for Liverpool. He starts out wide rather than lining up on the inside. The angles are different even if the intent is similar.
2. More chances created in the box
The contrasting make-up of City and Liverpool’s attacks, and Sterling’s place within them, has led to the Englishman creating more chances, and a higher proportion of his chances, inside the opposition’s box.
In the 2013/14 season, the winger created 0.49 chances per 90 minutes in the box, which accounted for 23.1% of all the chances he created. Fast forward to last season – his first under Guardiola – and Sterling’s productivity in the area has risen up to 0.65 chances created in the box per 90, and his position out wide on the flanks of the attack has allowed him to focus on sniffing out opportunities in this danger area in front of goal.
A healthy 39.1% of the chances he created in the Premier League in 2016/17 came inside the box. In his best season for Liverpool, his most prolific area of the pitch for creating chances was the zone popularly referred to as “the hole”, in front of the penalty area, which makes sense given his position in the team, at the tip of the midfield.
Yet he is still popping up to find runners from behind the forwards: 36.5% of the chances he conjured were created from within the hole in 2013/14 yet it was still his second-most creative zone in 2016/17 with 28.3% of his chances coming from this area.
It is players such as De Bruyne and David Silva who now take care of creating goal-scoring opportunities from the middle of the pitch. Sterling has been pushed wide where his dribbling ability can overwhelm full-backs and allow him to slip into dangerous positions in the box for City.
Last season, Eden Hazard was the only player to complete more dribbles in the opposition’s penalty area than Sterling, with 20. By comparison, in 2013/14 he managed only six successful dribbles in the box.
He is no longer the focal point as he was previously at Liverpool – and for some that has been a step down – but Guardiola appears to have decided he has a different purpose to fulfill for City.
3. A member of the supporting cast
Sterling’s status as an alternative route into the final third rather than the primary playmaker is underlined by the differences in the sort of chances that are laid on for him, his opportunities to score and ability to get into the best possible positions to take a shot on goal.
In 2013/14, the Englishman played six successful through balls to try and find Liverpool’s forwards and played 73 crosses, with an accuracy of 13.70%. For City last season he managed only one through ball and attempted a similar number of deliveries from out wide, with 84 crosses (or 3.01 per 90 compared to 2.95 four years previously) although only 8.33% found a teammate – unsurprising given the lack of height to find in the penalty box.
His rate of assists is almost identical across the two seasons, with 0.20 per 90 for Liverpool and 0.21 for City, although his goal threat has shrunk, from 0.36 per 90 in 2013/14 to 0.25 in 2016/17.
Perhaps that is due to the smaller number of high quality chances sent his way: eight clear cut chances under Guardiola last season to 13 in his best campaign playing for Rodgers, which accounted for 28.89% of all his shots taken as the Reds finished second. Only 12.50% of his shots came from big chances in his second season at City.
The best chances to score go to the players empowered to take up the best positions in the box, such as Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, not Sterling. His priority is to supply, not to score, and yet against Everton it was in this old role behind the attackers that he was deployed at half-time, and from where he scored the leveler to salvage a point 82 minutes in.
4. Less defensive work
Rodgers tasked Sterling with not only pulling the strings but winning the ball and disrupting the opposition’s shape through his work rate as well as his dribbling.
He won back the ball 2.10 times per 90 minutes for Liverpool in 2013/14. Under Guardiola last season he made only 1.15 successful ball-winning actions per 90 – more evidence of his move into a more specific, streamlined role at City where his ability to beat his markers is a cog in the machinery of the team.
While the winger may have completed more dribbles in his best season for the Reds, he is now making a higher percentage of his runs with the ball in the most dangerous areas of the pitch, as evidenced by his 20 successful take ons in the penalty area compared to the six he managed as Liverpool fell short of the title.
Guardiola is infamous for how much he tries to control over how his team plays, what his players do in each and every section of the pitch and how he wants to use their attributes to hurt opponents.
Sterling’s standing in the game and reputation will always suffer in the eyes of those who have long since made up their minds about the player for reasons besides his ability to play football, but while there may be a hunger to see him fail, and dismiss his role at City as a demotion, he has proven his value to his new manager and fans.