“After games you get messages from friends and family and I can honestly say of all the games I’ve played this year about 10 to 15 times I’ve had – from my mum – ‘you weren’t in the box as much as you should be. You should be closer to the goal so it makes it easier for you’.”
Raheem Sterling went on to say in that April 2016 interview that he calls his mum Jose Mourinho “because she actually thinks she is the Chosen One”, but presumably Nadine now insists on ‘Pep’ because her coaching mirrors the advice that Sterling has gobbled up from the man he quite rightly calls a “genius”. And we all know that there is absolutely no chance that Mourinho would encourage Sterling to get in the box more often.
Since Guardiola arrived at Manchester City and spotted a wonderful player stultified by a season of Manuel Pellegrini and fractured by a summer of the tabloid press, Sterling has had more touches in the penalty area than any other Premier League player. Significantly more than Romelu Lukaku, somewhat more than Harry Kane and rather a lot more than his closest challenger Alexis Sanchez. It has not been an overnight process – last season was still marred by poor decision-making and a lack of conviction – but the process is now close to complete; the frustrating and divisive winger has become the dangerous forward everybody should either admire or fear.
Sterling’s sixth Premier League goal of the season on Saturday would not have happened in any other season under any other Manchester City manager. Under Pellegrini, he would have been hiding on the touchline and under Guardiola last season, he may have been in the right place but there would have been a moment of self-doubt that flashed across his expressive face before he passed the ball into the grateful arms of the goalkeeper. It is incredibly hard to hit the ball with any conviction when in the middle of a panic.
Our eyes tell us that Sterling is rejuvenated, finally looking like the player that promised so much and yet never quite fully delivered, but the statistics help tell the story; last season’s 10.94% conversion rate in the Premier League has become this season’s 27.3%. Seven goals from 22 on-target shots has become six from eight. That kind of hit rate is probably unsustainable but with Sterling, goals beget confidence and confidence begets goals. His pre-season target of double figures now looks embarrassingly unambitious – his strike against Napoli on Tuesday night was his eighth of the season and only Lukaku and Kane can beat that total in English football.
Raheem Sterling is averaging a goal every 81 minutes for Manchester City this season.
— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) October 17, 2017
Sterling’s mature response to those Arsenal rumours told a story of absolute trust in Guardiola and his place in this wonderful Manchester City side. Sterling was the lazy journalist’s choice for a summer exit because he was not an expensive Guardiola purchase and with every new arrival – Leroy Sane was followed by Gabriel Jesus who was followed by Bernardo Silva – it seemed that Sterling would be pushed further down the pecking order. But Guardiola is a coach in the truest sense of the word and he saw in Sterling a phenomenal player he could enliven with just a few simple words of advice and a whole lot of love.
Did his other coach message him after his eighth goal of the season opened the scoring in City’s third Champions League win of the season? We certainly hope so. And we would forgive her a ‘told you so’ in and amongst the richly deserved pride and reminders to eat his greens.