Pep Guardiola loves Raheem Sterling—why can’t the rest of us?Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Weary contrition. Raheem Sterling seemed to know what was coming.

Awarded Sky Sports’ man of the match for his part in Manchester City’s convincing 3-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday at Wembley Stadium that moved them to within one win of the Premier League title—or, as it turned out, one Manchester United aberration—Sterling cut the figure of a man who could live without a lump of plastic for his mantle piece if it meant avoiding the inevitable. 

After Sterling dutifully answered questions on whether the win had ended a crisis stretching all of three matches, journalist Geoff Shreeves didn’t miss a beat as talk turned to profligacy.

After a goal and an assist against a Tottenham side unbeaten since the corresponding fixture on Dec. 16, a less well-adjusted player than the City man may have bridled at the timing of being quizzed on how he needs to improve. (Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris fouled Sterling outside the box, and referee Jon Moss awarded a penalty.)

With 22 goals, including 17 in the league from 25 starts, Sterling is City’s second-top goalscorer in a campaign that has seen them win the Premier League at a canter to add to the Carabao Cup they claimed in February. Yet for many he remains a punchline.

The old adage is no nation bigs up their players like the English; yet, no one tears them down with as much relish either. It’s safe to say Twitter wasn’t invented when Samuel Johnson wrote: “…an Englishman is content to say nothing, when he has nothing to say.”

On the day, Sterling had been everywhere.

When, in the second half, Pep Guardiola seized back the initiative after a dreadful Spurs had woken up to briefly threaten at 2-1 down, Sterling was pushed through the middle as Gabriel Jesus was sacrificed to allow City to switch to a back three. It was a masterstroke on the manager’s part at a time when Tottenham were jabbing at City’s purported soft underbelly. Key to it all was the England international’s ability to carry the fight from the front and lead the line with a physicality that belied his 5’6″ size.

To say he ran Davinson Sanchez ragged would be to say Jerry did a job on Tom. The Colombian has enjoyed an excellent debut campaign in England, but first Jesus and then Sterling led him in a merry dance as Spurs’ decision to push so high up the pitch proved their undoing. 

Sterling did everything but scoreand then he did in the 72nd minute. City’s third goal killed not just the game but also any wispy daydreams that lot from the other side of the city may have had of reigniting the title race. And still people weren’t happy.

Remarkably, given a papier-mache thin, tawdry tabloid construct of Sterling being both surly and lacking self-awareness (oh, the irony), he showed composure he perhaps lacked on occasion in the preceding 90 minutes to accept there are still rough edges to his game.

That he was ready to open up on the frustration of his wayward finishing was endearing. It is rare that MOTM recipients are expected to critique their shortcomings immediately after the game, but it’s even rarer that Sterling is treated like everyone else. He handled it with quietly exasperated good grace.

“Most definitely,” he told Sky Sports on being asked whether he could improve. “The game against United, I snatched at a few and didn’t take my time. Today, when I had a chance inside the box, I tried to take my time. I went around the goalkeeper and tried to be composed and the defender came at the last moment.”

When Guardiola called enough from the shadows, he was talking directly to his players being interviewed, but in Sterling’s case, it could equally have been aimed at his detractors.

In fairness to Shreeves, a broadcaster who once famously live on air informed an unaware Branislav Ivanovic he would miss the UEFA Champions League final through suspension with the glee of a guest shouting “surprise” at a birthday party, he was only reflecting popular public consciousness if the average voice on social media was anything to go by. 

At one point after Sterling hit Ben Davies when finding the goal arguably looked easier, Guardiola swung his own boot at a bottle on the touchline. His contact was cleaner. Then, with the game delicately poised at 2-1, in the incident he alluded to in his interview, Sterling tiptoed his way around Lloris only to delay shooting, twice, to allow Jan Vertonghen to heroically block his goal-bound shot. The howls of derision were not restricted to those inside Wembley. Far from it.

When allied with a couple of rusty efforts on Saturday, the effect of his shooting being high, wide and not so handsome in last weekend’s Manchester derby meant it was open season.

On announcing the annual budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer faced fewer accusations of wastefulness than Sterling did on Saturday. Chief executives of plastic-bottle manufacturers must look at the City man and plaintively mutter, “But for the love of God, that could be me…”

Paddy Power, the bookmaker who is to humour what Donald Trump is to diplomacy, tweeted: 

Dear God.

The English writer Will Self once opined: “A creative life cannot be sustained by approval any more than it can be destroyed by criticism.” If Sterling were to read what is said about him, to borrow a Charlie Brown line, his anxieties would have anxieties. He splits opinion like few others. Neutrals seem to either dislike like him a little or a lot.

All of which is terribly sad. Sterling is an Englishman who plays as if he might not be from England. He should be celebrated. Alas, it seems for large swathes, City won the title in spite of him.  

Better he stick to listening to Guardiola and let the rest stench up the great fart in the sky that is the internet.

“The moment he is able to increase the number of goals he scores in front of goal, he will become one of the best players in the world because he has everything,” was Guardiola’s more optimistic assessment of his player on Sky Sports. “He is a fighter. He is so dynamic. He is so good.

“But he has to improve that. He has a lot of chances, and he has to improve his average.”

A Sterling miss has now become a thing: a national event that invites whole families to stay up late together on a Saturday night in order to watch Match of the Day and collectively guffaw at his ineptitude. 

Every shot he takes has become a talking point, as though most other players tend to score whenever they have one.

In the opening sparring against Spurs, when he shot a yard or so over from the edge of the box, Martin Tyler made out as if he had recreated Ronny Rosenthal’s iconic miss for Liverpool against Aston Villa in 1992. Had any other player on the pitch made the same shot it would not have merited comment. The final 10 minutes of the game were dedicated almost exclusively to discussing Sterling’s finishing and final ball, the match a mere sideshow.

It’s in danger of becoming like when Glenn Hoddle said Andy Cole needed five chances to score a goal and everyone believed him. Forget the fact only Alan Shearer and Wayne Rooney have scored more in the history of the Premier League than Cole’s 187. The important thing to remember is he should have scored, by Hoddle’s calculation, just shy of 750.

Cole was never a true great, but he wasn’t a million miles off being one either. He certainly should never have become a figure of fun. And neither should Sterling.

Like Sterling, Cole was a big confidence player too. When he missed, he missed big, and those are the misses people tended to remember. With Sterling, it visibly manifests itself. The less confident he feels, the more touches he takes. The chance he spurned when he rounded Lloris illuminates as much.

In the Sky Sports studio post-match, Graeme Souness sounded unsure whether he was accentuating a positive or flagging up a negative when he said: “Every game he could score two or three goals.”

It’s definitely a positive. The problem with Sterling is people judge him from the moment he gets in the positions he does, as opposed to appreciate how he got there in the first place. You can’t just book an Uber from A to B.

His movement is exceptional and his speed frightening. If he keeps on improving his finishing—and he’s definitely improving for all the mockery—he might not be far from being the player Guardiola boldly predicts he might become.

Given he is accused on occasion of lacking big-game intelligence, he’s remarkably good at finding himself in goalscoring positions. That’s a real craft and one of the hardest to learn.

Assistant coach Mikel Arteta has worked tirelessly with Sterling, aiming to improve, per the Telegraph’s James Ducker, “specifically on the last action on the pitch—that control in the last moment to make the right movement in the final three or four metres.”

This type of work has made Sterling such a better player at City than at Liverpool. He now plays narrower, always looking to involve himself between the whites of the posts. When Leroy Sane has the ball on the left wing, it is well-versed to the point of becoming intuitive that he will come inside and make for the six-yard box. He has profited directly from the Germany international four times.

In many ways, it’s a question of aesthetics. By their nature, Guardiola teams are invariably beautiful things to look at. For such an innovator, it’s a natural beauty he brings to the surface. As a consequence, someone like Sterling, the relative ugly duckling to Sane’s graceful swan, will always stand out.

Sterling’s unusual running style, which he apparently inherited from his mother, a one-time athlete for Jamaica in her youth, is ceaselessly mocked. His (in)ability to strike the ball cleanly leaves the jury hung at best. Paul Scholes’ assessment of Sterling in 2015, when he was at Liverpool, still rings true for many.

“There is an observation I find myself coming back to every time I watch Sterling,” he wrote in The Independent. “I don’t rate him that highly as a striker of the ball and by that I mean, literally, how he kicks it. His touch is good. His problem is the hit. Too often his shots are a scuff or a bobble.”

It is worth remembering how ruthless Guardiola is. In his first season as a coach in 2008/09, he sold Deco and Ronaldinho, despite the fact they were two of Barcelona’s best and most high-profile players. They won the treble. Guardiola is not persevering with Sterling. He is in his wonderful Manchester City team because he thinks he is something special now.

Just ask Bernardo Silva. A player who arrived at City in the summer after a phenomenal season at Monaco has had to settle for a bit-part role in Manchester after being unable to dislodge him. Sterling could have seen Silva or Sane’s arrival as a sign of his own time being up. Instead, it has driven him to a higher level. For that, he deserves unreserved credit.   

A case in point when discussing aesthetics: In the second half, Kevin De Bruyne played him in with a flicked pass of such grace and eleganceafter the ball had come down from a height that will have caused air traffic control to report an unspecified flying object—that his inability to finish precipitated a collective groan. 

And yet, had Sterling’s blistering pace not roasted Sanchez, the chance would never have existed. Was it De Bruyne’s pass or Sterling’s pace that made the opportunity? Far from wasting it, there’s an argument to say he enhanced it. Otherwise, it would have been a cute flick into no man’s land. 

The common argument cited by those who think Sterling is elevated to a level beyond his ability, courtesy of those around him, is that any half-decent forward player could do the same job in this City team. It probably is a fair assumption to make that playing in this side is easier than most. Even if the running stats bear testimony to the fact it is no walk in the park.

However, that Sanerightfully lauded as one of the world’s best young playershas scored nine fewer goals (albeit with five more assists) than Sterling, despite playing for the most part this season in the same position on the opposite flank, surely dispels the idea the Englishman is somehow lucky to be there. Sterling, 23, being just a year his senior should not be forgotten either. Both are still young.

The idea a different player would score more of the chances Sterling misses is inherently flawed, as there is no way of knowing whether they would find themselves in the same position in the first place.

Even now in his huge collared shirts, Shearer would probably have scored at least one of the chances Sterling spurned on Saturday, but he wouldn’t have gotten there.

In terms of not dropping his head when he’s missed a chance, Sterling has a type of mental toughness that is a rare quality to have in any walk of life.

As Johan Cruyff put it: “Look, the thing about [Filippo] Inzaghi is he can’t actually play football at all. He’s just always in the right positions.”

It has been well-documented how the 22 goals he has scored this season are more than in the previous two campaigns combined. It’s not the only telling statistic. Sterling has scored 10 more in all competitions than fellow PFA Young Player of the Year nominee Marcus Rashford, and he trails Rashford and Antony Martial’s combined tally by just a solitary goal.

His 17 Premier league goals are more than £75 million striker Romelu Lukaku has managed, while that number also betters Roberto Firmino and Eden Hazard’s returns his season. He has made more assists than any of them too.    

In fact, Hazard, a two-time Premier League winner and former PFA Player of the Year, has never scored more than 16 in a single campaign. He won’t have been taking the piss out of Sterling’s running style this term.

Only Mohamed Salah (30 goals, nine assists), Harry Kane (24 25 goals, two assists) and Sergio Aguero (21 goals, six assists) can better the 25 goals Sterling has either scored or assisted in the league this season.

One day Sterling might top such a list.

Maybe then he will be able to conduct a post-match interview without a look of weary contrition etched all over his face.

                              

All stats worked out via WhoScored.com unless otherwise stated



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