Guardiola and the unlocking of Raheem Sterling’s talent
"The cream always rises to the top" is one of the oft-used clichés that often make sense. The idea that the most talented individuals/collectives always attain the topmost positions is an idea as old as human civilization.
Going by this, the rapid rise of Raheem Sterling as a player should surprise no one. Having joined the Queen’s Park Rangers youth set-up as a precocious 7-year-old, it was clear even from his early days that he was a genuine talent.
A player who for silly (and possibly racist) reasons has been consistently vilified by certain sections of the English media and public, his present status as a bonafide star has not come easy.
Growing up in an economically disadvantaged family (his dad was shot when he was aged just two); football provided an escape for the youngster. A player who for a large part of his career has epitomized the phrase “rough diamond”, Sterling’s rise has been remarkable.
Growing up in a fossilized football culture that prided power and an imposing physique over technique and intelligence, the slightly built Jamaican-born star has had to struggle to constantly prove himself.
Early in his career at Liverpool, he had looked like the stereotypical English winger: a road runner who had pace to burn but lacked a footballing brain to take even the most basic decisions correctly. Playing as a winger with a license to drift in Brendan Roger’s 4-3-3 formation, the youngster’s pace and ability to beat his defender was a feature of Liverpool's attack in his three seasons under the Northern Irishman.
He helped stretch defences and make space in the middle for Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to wreak havoc especially in the 2013-2014 season. Playing in this role, he scored 9 and 7 league goals respectively in his two full seasons at the club.
However, even then, his play was characterized by sloppiness in possession, errant passing and a rather bad record for finishing chances.
Early struggles under Pellegrini at Manchester City
After the acrimony that greeted his departure from Liverpool to Manchester City for a record-fee for an English player (a record broken by Kyle Walker's arrival at the Etihad last season), Sterling really struggled.
Manuel Pellegrini is a fine manager and a finer man who had played some sparkling football in leading the Cityzens to the Premier League title in 2014. However, in what proved to be his last season in charge of the team, everything went to hell in the 2015-2016 season.
Despite having expensive new recruits in Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne, Nicolas Otamdeni among others, the ageing nature of the team coupled with Pellegrini's ineffective tactics/selections meant the team struggled badly in the league.
Weighed down by the weight of the transfer fee, the then 20-year-old struggled to justify himself. Every touch, move and miscue was greeted with hysterics and analyzed to death especially by the Liverpool-supporting members of the English football press.
In his own words as quoted by the Daily Telegraph, he said:
“I had a rough year, my first year at Man City, a big club for a big transfer fee,” said Sterling. “There was a lot of talk, a lot of pressure, and I didn’t think I was being spoken about in a fair manner.
The booing by the press and members of the public affected his game badly even though he managed to produce 11 goals in 47 matches that season. The booing continued even when he went on international duty as he was singled out for fierce criticism following England's awful exit at the hands of Iceland in the Euros.
Enter the man with the Midas touch
While this was going on, the powers-that-be at Manchester City had finally gotten their man as Pep Guardiola was announced as the club's new manager in February. Many in the press had speculated that the Spaniard was going to axe Sterling from his team as he did not look like a Guardiola-type player.
However, Raheem was one of the first players the Catalan genius had spoken to when he took the City job. He was assured of a place in the team and told to focus on his game and let his football do the talking.
Their first season together was just okay as the team failed to win any silverware and struggled to get the 3rd position in the league behind Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. The much-vaunted improvement in Sterling's play did not materialize as he failed to hit double-figures in goals in league football once again. Deployed across both flanks, his ambling running style showed no signs of improvement while his finishing and decision making remained as poor as ever.
Pep was quoted as saying in The Guardian recently:
'His head ... the first season, he was scared, he was looking, "who is the guy I am going to pass the ball to?"
Being the arch-perfectionist, the manager noted the glaring weaknesses in his team especially in the full-back positions and strengthened accordingly. With the defence sorted and a full year training and learning the Catalan's methods, Sterling was one of the success stories of the 2017-2018 Premier League season.
How it all changed for Sterling
A man bred in the finest traditions of Barcelona where he had excelled as player, captain and manager, Guardiola knows more than anyone, the importance of controlling the ball properly.
In training and the matches itself, he had seen how Sterling controlled the ball with the outside of his foot, or trap it under his boot, stopping the ball. This meant slowing the ball down and giving the opposing defender time to intercept.
Working regularly with both Pep and his assistant, Mikel Arteta, the England international got better at controlling the ball by learning to open his body up and move quickly with the ball. In combination with his searing pace, this simple change meant Sterling got better at playing the quick give-and-go passing style favoured by the manager.
The arrival of Walker and Danilo meant he could come inside more and get involved in the action closer to the goal. This was unlike the 2016-2017 season where he always stayed wide to cover for Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna's lack of pace.
The explosion in delivery; 23 goals and 17 assists in 46 games was absolutely phenomenal. Playing sometimes in the Lionel Messi-role; a false 9 with a license to roam across the frontline helped increase Sterling's awareness, decision making and sharpness in front of goal. Coupled with an increased physical training regime, he became stronger on and off the ball.
This improvement has continued into this season as he already has 6 goals and 6 assists in just 13 games across all competitions. With news that he has verbally agreed on a new 5-year deal to stay at the club, it seems Sterling is finally ready for the world-class tag. In Guardiola, he has the perfect manager to do just that.