Can sterling deliver the promises

Can Sterling Deliver Under Guardiola

When your personal highlight of a tournament is a choice between being felled for a penalty or tweeting, “’#TheHatedOne”, it hasn’t been a good month.

Raheem Sterling, then the most expensive English player in history, was Public Enemy Number Two. His summer was so bad that couldn’t even come top of that list; Harry Kane took the top spot with his egotistical performances and wasteful possession.

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Nonetheless, for a player who thrives on confidence, it was a body blow. Sterling is a voracious reader of social media and England coaching staff were concerned that the abuse had undermined his self-belief.

It continued a theme from the previous season when he attracted the opprobrium of the red half of Merseyside by agitating for a move to Manchester City. It could only have been worse if he had gone to United.

But Raheem Sterling has been a man reborn this season and at the heart of this resurgence is new City boss Pep Guardiola.

Pep Guardiola

The Spaniard is a keen admirer of Sterling and had been interested in signing the England international whilst in charge at Bayern Munich. It’s rumoured that City’s owners sought his approval before the record-breaking deal which brought him to the Etihad.

Guardiola had already given his verbal commitment to succeeding Manuel Pellegrini at that stage. With his blessing, City aggressively pursued and landed their quarry.

The biggest and most positive intervention came during Euro 2016.

Guardiola had finished with Bayern but yet to formally take over at City. Despite this, he contacted Sterling, knowing his charge was affected by the criticism he was receiving. Roy Hodgson had already informed the player that he was going to drop him for the final group match against Slovakia, prompting Guardiola’s action.

During their talks, the Spaniard reassured the winger that he was a central part of his plans for the coming season. Guardiola wasn’t worried by his England performances and told Sterling, “As long as you work for me, I’ll fight for you.”

Knowing England had matches remaining in the tournament, he continued, “Keep your head up, don’t worry, I know you’re a good player and you are a big part of my plans.”

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For Sterling, those words were worth a thousand Man of the Match accolades.

Not that England reaped any immediate benefit. When he appeared against Iceland, Sterling was by no means the only forward who didn’t turn up and his performance underlined the manner in which the players had lost their way.

If he found space on the wings, he turned inside into areas where opponents were waiting. He hugged the touchline until confronted, and then the best option was to win a throw or corner.

Fundamentally he lacked the dynamism which had made him stand out during the 2014 World Cup, marking his potential for all to see.

Guardiola’s arrival has been a breath of fresh air for Sterling. In the two games he has played for the Spaniard, there has been a vibrancy about his play. The dribbles and passes are working; the hours on the training pitches are paying off.

In this week’s Champions League play-off first leg in Bucharest, Sterling continually had the Steaua defence on the back foot, keeping them guessing as to which way he would twist and turn.

City’s crisp passing makes the most of his pace as well, creating space by loading one side of the pitch with players to open up attacking avenues on the other. It’s given him a freedom he enjoys with opponents only able to put one player onto the winger rather than the two he frequently faced last season.

Kingsley Coman underlined the benefits wide players receive in Guardiola as a coach: “From the start of the season, I remember him telling me after a match 'Don't ever stop yourself from dribbling.'”

Having that licence relieves pressure on players. They don’t have to be scared of failing, simply be afraid of not trying. He works constantly on their confidence, giving them encouragement and telling them that things will come together. So long as he sees effort, Guardiola is relatively happy.

And more importantly, the players are given freedom to roam across the final third of the pitch. If they are bogged down on the flank, they are free to drift inside to the other wing, with their counterpart shifting in the opposite direction. Sterling has the intelligence to work on either side of the pitch.

Coman is the example Sterling should follow. Signed on loan from Juventus, the French international thrived under Guardiola’s tutelage, with Bayern relieved that they have already set the fee for a permanent move come the end of this season.

Sterling also looks fitter. His small frame means excess pounds show more readily but this season he looks leaner than last time around.

The final service Guardiola has done is strengthening the squad. There is true competition for places with the arrival of Nolito and Leroy Sane. Previously, Sterling was a shoo-in for his place in the starting line-up unless Pellegrini played with a false winger.

Now, three into two places don’t go and with David Silva orchestrating play from the centre of midfield, Sterling knows that if his performance levels drop, he will do the same to the bench. So far, he has responded positively to that pressure, something which will have pleased Guardiola.

Contrast Sterling’s fate under Guardiola to that of Joe Hart. The goalkeeper is heading toward the exit door with Claudio Bravo arriving from Barcelona. The warning to the City squad has been delivered.

And it’s been heeded by Sterling. He was a disappointing season in 2015/16 with just six Premier League goals in thirty-one appearances and half the number of assists. At £44m, City were expecting more from him.

Guardiola has given him the platform upon which to perform; it’s up to Sterling now to deliver.

About the Author Moha

Hardcore fun of the beautiful game. Played soccer for different clubs in my country before hanging up my boots. Now writer for My Soccer HQ

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