Raheem Sterling has been in outstanding form for Manchester City this season. Ahead of their Super Sunday meeting with Arsenal, Nick Wright examines his recent improvement under Pep Guardiola.
Few young players have had to cope with quite as much criticism as Raheem Sterling. The winger is still two months shy of his 23rd birthday but he is already accustomed to his performances being slated; his private life scrutinised. It is more than two years since he swapped Liverpool for Manchester City but the move still seems to rankle with many.
This season, however, his critics have run low on ammunition. Sterling has starred in Manchester City’s record-breaking start to the season. His total of seven Premier League goals is second only to Harry Kane’s, and there have been two assists as well. From averaging a goal or assist every 194 minutes last season, he is now contributing one every 56 minutes.
It is a dramatic upturn in form from a player many people expected to slip down the pecking order this season. Manchester City added the £43m Bernardo Silva to an already fearsome attack in the summer, and when Sunday’s opponents Arsenal attempted to include Sterling in a swap deal for Alexis Sanchez on Deadline Day, it fuelled the feeling that Sterling might be the fall guy.
But for all his doubters, he has always had the faith of the man who matters most. A year on from phoning Sterling to offer reassurance during his torrid Euro 2016 campaign, Pep Guardiola rejected Arsenal’s enquiry out of hand. “They talked to me and I said: ‘No chance. Zero chance. Not one per cent chance we will swap Raz because I trust a lot in him’,” he explained.
Man City vs Arsenal
November 5, 2017, 1:00pm
Get Sky Sports Get a Sky Sports pass
Sterling only impressed in patches during Guardiola’s first season at the Etihad, but his response to the speculation showed the trust he feels from his manager. “I didn’t have any negative thoughts or anything bad about it,” he said. “It wasn’t something I was worried about because Pep is an honest guy, and he would have spoken to me about it before that.”
Guardiola’s unwavering faith in Sterling has paid off emphatically now. The Catalan has rotated his attackers from game to game this season, but Sterling has made the most of his opportunities. His first-time finish from Kyle Walker’s cross against West Brom on Saturday was the difference between a draw and a win. His goals against Napoli, Bournemouth and Everton were also pivotal.
Sterling’s confidence is soaring and, like Leroy Sane on the opposite flank, he has also benefitted from Manchester City’s defensive additions in the summer. “The problems they had at full-back last season have gone,” said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football. “With the full-backs he had last season, Guardiola was never going to win the league.”
Where there were once aging legs, there is now youthful energy and dynamism. Benjamin Mendy’s cruciate injury came as a blow to Guardiola’s plans, but Walker, Danilo and even Fabian Delph are all capable of getting up and down the flank with far greater intensity than their predecessors.
Sterling ranked third in the Premier League for touches opposition box last year, but with more willing runners on the overlap this season, he is now popping up in those positions even more frequently. Sterling has gone from averaging 8.6 touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes to 11.6 per 90 minutes in 2017/18. Only Sane even comes close.
Even more significant for Sterling, however, is that he is finally making those positions count. The lack of conviction that dogged him in the past no longer seems to be an issue. His shot conversion rate has leapt from 10.9 per cent to 30.4 per cent this season. It is a small sample size but it is not insignificant. Only Leicester’s Jamie Vardy has been more clinical.
Sterling is comfortably on course for the most prolific season of his career, but there will be no let-up from Guardiola. The former Bayern Munich and Barcelona manager is known for constantly pushing his players and he is already demanding more from both Sterling and Sane.
“They still have a big, big gap to improve,” he said this week. “I would like to tell them to be calm. Scoring goals is so important, playing well is so important, but still they can do better – I have no doubt about that. They can improve in the simple things. If you have the ball, don’t lose the ball. I don’t ask you to dribble, I don’t ask for good crosses, I don’t ask for good shots. Simple things.”
Guardiola will keep pushing, but for Sterling the signs of improvement are already there. He is losing possession less frequently and completing more of his passes, and it extends to his dribbling too. Guardiola has always loved Sterling’s one-on-one ability, but this season his success rate has jumped from 49.7 per cent to 60 per cent. “He makes sure you do the simple things and it works,” said Sterling earlier this season.
From the passing and moving to the finishing and dribbling, City are feeling the benefits of Sterling’s improvement. And after all that went on in the summer, Sunday’s meeting with Arsenal could provide a fitting demonstration of his growing importance to Guardiola’s side.
Watch Manchester City v Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League HD from 1pm on Sunday