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Raheem Sterling

Manchester City, 2015–

Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Agüero may have long been considered the finest modern-day signings Manchester City have made, but Raheem Sterling’s transformation under Pep Guardiola could yet earn him parity with even that decorated triumvirate. As they continue to rebuild following the departures of Kompany and Silva, it is Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne who are emerging as the leaders of a particularly exciting team.

In over five years in Manchester, over four of which have been spent under Guardiola, Sterling has matured from the most promising English footballer into the most influential, and to a level that makes him capable of excelling for any team in the world. Most recently he has become so reliable a goalscorer that the £49m spent recruiting him from Liverpool has already been made to look good value, and even when his best years are likely still in front of him.

Tactical analysis
Sterling has long been a huge threat in one-on-one situations, but he has become so much more than that under the guidance of Guardiola at City. From his earliest days in Liverpool’s first team he used his speed and acceleration to beat opponents, but over time defenders adjusted to his preference to attack on the outside. Since moving to City he has worked on cutting back inside (below) and has become deadly when doing so. Sterling is equally dangerous on both wings and whether remaining wide or cutting inside, making him not only particularly unpredictable, but capable of providing a better link with the lone central striker Guardiola prefers.

Sterling’s ability to effectively counter-press has also improved. At Liverpool, because of his speed he was adept at applying pressure, but his pressing has become more intelligent. He has rarely registered huge numbers when recovering possession, but he is better at forcing defenders into smaller spaces and the rushed clearances that lead to regains, even if Sterling doesn’t actually win the ball himself.

Both in winning the ball and in attacking situations, he has improved how he uses his body. He is pushed off the ball less often and is able to hold off defenders while penetrating into the final third; defensively, those improvements have helped his team to more consistently recover the ball high up the pitch.

Sterling’s greatest strength, regardless, is the threat he provides on goal. He might not have quite the finishing ability of Jamie Vardy or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – who with Danny Ings were the only players to outscore Sterling in the Premier League in 2019/20 – but his movement is up there with the very best. The frequency with which Sterling reaches low balls across the face of goal is no coincidence – he waits as his teammates build play into the final third before timing his run to perfection to get into position.

His expected goals total for 2019/20 was 19.80 – almost exactly the same number as the 20 goals he recorded, and significantly higher than Vardy, Aubameyang and Ings. Sterling does not rely as much on exceptional finishing as his rivals who outscored their xG total by far more than him; he instead gets himself into positions where he is likely to score, and successfully converts most of the chances he receives.

Role at Manchester City
Sterling makes most of his appearances on City’s left wing, where with his improved shooting after cutting inside and on to his right foot he has become more dangerous. He is almost as threatening from the right – Phil Foden’s emergence on the left side of City’s attack meant Sterling spent much of the end of 2019/20 there – and has also played through the middle as a false nine.

Though Guardiola asks his wide attackers to stretch the pitch by holding their position – something Sterling does well – when his team are building from the back they are also tasked with making bursting, diagonal runs from outside to in and towards goal in perfect unison with the midfield turning a slow build-up into a quick attack (below). Sterling is so in sync with his teammates that he knows exactly when to spring into life and sprint towards goal. The combination of his well-timed runs and the speed that few defenders can match – particularly given they have to turn back towards their own goal – means he gets in on goal with remarkable consistency, and have made Guardiola and Sterling a perfect match.

The 20 league goals Sterling scored in 2019/20 represented a career best, but a consequence of his increased focus on scoring was him recording his lowest ever total of assists. In 33 appearances for the Premier League’s highest-scoring team he managed just one.

His role for City is closer to that of a second striker than a traditional winger – he moves to between the lines to link play, and his focus when in possession and facing goal is to shoot. Only three players had more shots than Sterling in the Premier League in 2019/20 – all also made more appearances than him – and he ranked 24th in the league and fifth for City for chances created. City have such creativity in Kevin De Bruyne, Foden, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez that they needn’t worry about Sterling’s lack of assists, but given how often he is on the ball in the opposition’s penalty area he should improve in that regard.

Sterling continues adding to his game and, having developed into one of the Premier League’s most deadly goalscorers, there is little reason to think he cannot complement those girls with assists. He is undoubtedly among the very best in the Premier League.

Raheem Sterling

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