As Raheem Sterling glided through the Steaua Bucharest defence in the first leg of Manchester City’s Champions League qualifier, it was difficult to believe we were watching the same player that cowered and faltered with England at Euro 2016.
Sterling was booed more fervently than any other England player over the summer, capping a difficult 12 months following his £49m transfer from Liverpool to the Citizens. So recently England’s darling after a meteoric rise in the north-west, the 21-year-old has been given a crash course in the fickleness of modern football.
But finally Sterling may be about to find some stability. His new manager, Pep Guardiola, seemingly understands how to utilise his talents and is sympathetic to the winger’s uniquely pressurised position in English football.
It is easy to forget that Sterling is still only 21, and thus still learning the game. So much has happened in his short career and it is perhaps because of this – along with the extraordinary fee Manuel Pellegrini paid to bring him to the Etihad – that fans and pundits are so quick to judge his form.
Fortunately, Guardiola seems to have restored Sterling’s fragile self-esteem. His performance against Sunderland last weekend was encouraging if unspectacular (his confidence on the ball and attacking intent were notably improved from his timid displays in an England shirt), but against Steaua he burst into life – grabbing two assists and earning his second penalty in as many matches.
Cynics may question whether Sterling’s return to form is temporary. After all, his performances at City last campaign suggested that he flattered to deceive, that his speed and agility gave only the illusion of creativity.
But this analysis fails to appreciate the extent to which Sterling-types require quick tempo, fluid attacking football in order to flourish. Opposition defenders tend to double-up on Sterling to nullify his influence, which is easier to achieve against wingers who prioritise dribbling speed over subtlety. The defensive task only becomes more difficult when supporting attackers make decoy runs or counter-attack with the element of surprise.
This is why Sterling looked world-class at Liverpool whilst playing alongside Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge (their position-swapping and explosive, intelligent counters created space for Sterling to gallop into) and it is why he is rediscovering his best form under Guardiola.
Sterling’s renaissance is symptomatic of the seismic tactical shift underway at Man City. Pellegrini’s strategy had become stale and predictable, his low-tempo possession style plainly unsuited to Sterling’s attributes. Last season, the stagnancy of City’s football allowed opponents to get plenty of men behind the ball before Pellegrini’s team entered the final third. Sterling was never going to perform well in that environment.
Conversely, Guardiola is the perfect coach for England’s winger. He tends to use nimble-footed playmakers like David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne to draw the opposition into the middle of the pitch, leaving huge pockets of space for quick wingers to drive from outside to in.
The extra space – also created by the sheer complexity of City’s decoy runs and well-rehearsed plays – has allowed Sterling to build up speed as he approaches the box, explaining his jump from an average of 1.3 dribbles per match last season to the six he achieved against Sunderland (according to whoscored.com).
Manchester City will benefit enormously from Sterling’s dribbling skills this campaign, although it may not always be noticeable. One of his biggest assets to a team is the fear he strikes in opponents; by drawing defenders towards him with his clever off-the-ball runs and direct dribbles into the box, Sterling creates space for others.
De Bruyne and Silva will be afforded the time and space needed to slip passes through to Sergio Aguero this season simply because Sterling is so distracting. This is why he – more than Nolito, Leroy Sane, or any of City’s other attacking midfielders – will consistently find himself in Guardiola’s starting XI.
Few youngsters face as much constant scrutiny as Sterling, who has – understandably – shown signs in the past that negative attention can affect his game. But Guardiola has a good reputation for bringing through young players and maximising their potential.
Raheem Sterling’s first two games of the season suggest this could be the year he silences his critics. If he does, then Man City stand a good chance of finally winning the Champions League, which is priced at 12/1 with bwin.