Manchester City’s narrow 1-0 victory over Dutch outfit Feyenoord in the Champions League secured top spot in Group F, and ensured Guardiola’s men maintained their perfect 100% start in Europe’s elite competition this season with one final group game to go.
The goal coming from the sort of wonderful football City fans have been accustomed to so far in the Premier League this season. Raheem Sterling picked up the ball outside the D, played in Ilkay Gundogan, the German midfield maestro then executed a peach of a return pass which split Feyenoord’s defence like a knife through butter. Kevin De Bruyne would have been wondering how on earth could Gundogan attempt such a delightful ball when the Belgian has been shaping up similar passes at a canter this season.
What followed the pass was equally delightful, as Raheem Sterling pounced on the pass and dinked the ball confidently over the despairing Feyenoord goalkeeper to give City the lead, and make it his fourth Champions League goal in four starts this season. Follow that in with the vital winner against Huddersfield on Sunday as City looked as if they would drop points for only the second time this season. A tad fortuitous, but it goes to show the improvements Sterling is making by being at the right place at the right time in the penalty box.
To put it simply, Raheem Sterling is enjoying the most prolific period of his career to date. Check out his goal scoring record this season: 12 goals in just 17 appearances is remarkable for a player who has received countless criticism since his move to the Etihad in 2015. The finish against Feyenoord was of the sort any modern day forward would be proud of even his team-mate Sergio Aguero who endured a rather difficult night in front of goal. The way in which the English international took his opportunity encapsulated his massive maturity and the improvement in his game. Under Guardiola’s guidance Sterling has grown incredibly and his stats tell the reason why.
Few young players have had to cope with the amount of pressure and criticism Sterling has faced over the past few years. He is still a few weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, but he has already been accustomed to his performances being slated and his private life scrutinised to make matters worse. It is now more than two years since his big money move from Anfield to the Etihad, and his switch in allegiance is still bitter on the tongue to many Liverpool fans simply for the fact that they believe he only moved for the money.
This season so far, however, his critics are nowhere to be seen, running low on ammunition. Sterling has starred in what has already been a record breaking start to Manchester City’s campaign. His total of eight Premier League goals so far means he is amongst the leading scorers so far this season, and two behind top scorer Mohammed Salah of Liverpool (10). Throw in two assists as well, and Sterling has been one of the leading lights in City’s fantastic start.
This was a man believed to be down the pecking order when City brought in £43m signing Bernardo Silva from Ligue 1 champions Monaco in the summer. Sterling was even subject of a swap deal with Alexis Sanchez to Arsenal, many thought he would be the fall guy. Despite the brilliance of the Bernardo Silva, Guardiola has kept faith with Raheem Sterling and his belief has been duly rewarded.
Sterling has always had the faith of the man who matters most. A year on from phoning Sterling after his torrid time at Euro 2016 with England, to reassure him that his place on the City would not be in jeopardy, Guardiola rejected Arsenal’s enquiry out of hand. The winger only impressed in patches during Guardiola’s first season in charge, but that hasn’t stopped Guardiola showing his unwavering faith.
The Catalan coach has rotated his attacking players heavily this season, and Sterling has certainly made the most of his opportunities. His recent goals against Feyenoord, West Brom, Napoli, Bournemouth and Everton have proven pivotal. Sterling’s confidence is sky high, and with Leroy Sane on the opposite flank in similar vein of form, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva causing riot in midfield, City’s forwards will have no complaints about a lack of service. City have service in abundance.
When there was once ageing legs, Guardiola has been quick to get rid, and replace them with youthful exuberance. Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane, Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva are names that will light up any league in the world. Guardiola must be drooling every single week at the sight of the attacking talent at his disposal.
Nonetheless, Sterling ranked third for most touches in the opposition box last term, but with more willing runners on the overlap this season, he has found himself on the end of attacking moves more frequently. Even more significantly for Sterling though, is how he is making the most of getting into those positions. The lack of composure or conviction that has hampered him in the past seem to be no more. His shot conversion rate has lept from 10.9 per cent to 30.4 percent. Only Leicester’s Jamie Vardy has been more clinical in front of goal this campaign.
Raheem Sterling is comfortably on course for his most prolific season yet, if he carries on this sort of form. It is no surprise in the fact that Guardiola has kept him in the City line up despite the wealth of attacking talent in his arsenal. The signs of improvement and maturity for Sterling is there, he is losing possession more frequently and completing more passes, and it all extends to his dribbling too. His dribbling success rate has significantly increased this season from 49.7 per cent to 60 per cent.
City are definitely reaping the benefits of Sterling’s improvement. From the passing and movement to the dribbling and finishing, Sterling is mastering the art of becoming an all round footballer. It seems as though the criticisms of the past have not only strengthened him but has also matured him to the extent that City can rely on him when needed as Tuesday night showed. An unerring finish from a player ticking all the right boxes so far this campaign.
It can only get better from here for Raheem Sterling.