I’m sorry if this sounds more like the financial news story we’re all hoping for, but Sterling has improved dramatically over the last couple of months. Not the famous British Pound, I’m afraid to say, but Man City forward Raheem Sterling.
Since the arrival of maverick manager Pep Guardiola, the former Liverpool winger is a man (boy) been reborn. I even made him captain in my fantasy team for three weeks for the first time. I still remember the day he made his first League start for Liverpool, against his current club funnily enough. I recall thinking “For crying out loud, it’s Man City. Can’t we experiment with youngsters in the League Cup like everyone else?”
I was wrong. He was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant, given his age and inexperience. Kolo Toure had no idea what was happening, and it was a matter of minutes before his brilliant work created a golden chance, squandered in the end by Fabio Borini. But he did it all game and we drew 2-2. He’d just usurped Michael Owen to become the second youngest ever LFC player, coming on against Wigan at the end of the previous season, with just Jack Robinson younger. Not long after, he became the club’s youngest goalscorer, again beating Owen. All was looking rosy.
It seemed to keep getting better, making 36 appearances that season. In 2013/14, he was a properly integral part of the flamboyant attack that almost dragged Liverpool to the elusive Premier League title. 10 goals, 9 in the league, remain his best goals-per-game total to date. Since then, he’s hit 11 goals both seasons but in 52 and 47 games.
Last season, however, the jury was out on whether he’d been worth the £49m City paid for him. Booed at times during games, criticised for his decision making and noted for poor quality finishing weren’t the hallmarks of the most expensive English player ever. The statistics weren’t bad at all though; his joint best goalscoring return, with 11 goals in 47 games isn’t bad for a winger of his age, while he also created a total of two assists and over thirty key passes to prove his usefulness as a team member.
Two things stood out though. After that excellent 13/14 season, where 67% of his shots were on target, he slipped to 61% in his first campaign with City, with just 22 shots on target over the league season – his lowest total in a full season; surprising, given his regular starting berth as part of such a powerful attacking force. Kevin De Bruyne, Agüero (obviously) and even Yaya Toure managed more shots on target. In 13/14, brimming with confidence, he had 35 shots on target, leading to his 9 goals. That’s a goal every 3.89 shots on target. This most recent season, even though his shot count was much lower, 6 goals from 22 shots on target equals one every 3.67 shots on target – a better goals-to-shots rate.
The talent is there, but I think a bit more confidence in his ability to take a chance would have seen him shoot more, hit the target more and, by extension, score more.
He also only created 35 clear cut chances: 1.12 per game. His last two seasons with Liverpool he provided 52 and 75. As well as a confidence boost, he needed some time to gel with a new team, and that’s what he’s been given. 10 chances in 9 games may not be an improvement, but that time spent bonding with his team has at least translated into more goals and improved his overall attacking contribution.
10 shots on target already puts his average shots per game rate higher than ever before. He’s also bagged 4 goals so far – a goal every 2.5 games; a huge, huge jump from what he’s been working at before. This is where the Pep factor is making the difference: it’s what he does to players. In Messi’s first season under the Spaniard, he hit 38 goals and won his first Ballon D’or with Pep in charge, before winning three more in years where they worked together. The year before this Pep’s arrival, Messi hit less than half as many goals as that. Look at him now.
When Guardiola moved to Bayern Munich, he signed Robert Lewandowski. After settling in fairly well in year one, he was molded into the team and hit his best scoring season yet, with 42 in 51 games. This season he’s on 10 in 13, while more than half of his international goals have come since the two first worked together.
I don’t know if Raheem Sterling will quite hit the heights of those two, nor do I necessarily think he’s in many ways a similar player to them. That’s not the point: what I’m saying is Pep Guardiola seems to manage some players exceptionally. Those he reveres with great esteem flourish under his tutelage, and having played every league game so far that’s one category Sterling shares with such famous players as Messi and Lewandowski.
He’s going to have a brilliant, brilliant season this time around. He’ll score more than he has in one campaign, and by the end of it he will be hailed as someone England should be turning to to help bring this broken national team out of the dirt.
And he’s only 21. Just you wait another few years, I think we will have one hell of a player on our hands.