‘What next for Raheem Sterling?’ was the question posed in typical tabloid tone in various places over the last six weeks, offering their own unmentioned answer. “A brilliant start to the season,” is the relevant response after Pep Guardiola’s opening two matches in charge. That wasn’t quite what they were hinting at.
We at Football365 won’t apologise for fighting Sterling’s corner, repeatedly and vociferously. The media reaction to his underperformance in France – as if here were alone in that regard – was vitriolic and, in some quarters, felt as if it had racial connotations. Newsflash: Nobody wanted Raheem Sterling to achieve more than Raheem Sterling. The faux-controversy over buying his Mum a house was the lowest form of scapegoating.
Until this summer, Sterling’s biggest crime was demonstrating the ambition to desire a move to a serial title challenger. His first season in Manchester was disappointing by any reasonable judgement, but he would not be the first young, expensive signing who struggled to peak in his first campaign under significant pressure.
The insinuation post Euro 2016 was that Guardiola would have no patience with Sterling’s inconsistency, but the opposite always seemed more likely. Guardiola has always championed the cause of quick wingers, believing them crucial in exploiting the space created after winning possession. This is hardly anything radical, but makes Sterling a key player in the Spaniard’s reign.
Guardiola said exactly that after Sterling’s impressive performance against Sunderland on the opening weekend: “He has the quality to play right or left, go to the byline or inside. He is a fighter. Of course we want more from him but we are very happy. He is a very nice guy and from the beginning I had a feeling this guy is good.”
2 – Raheem Sterling has provided two assists in a game for Manchester City for the first time. Service.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 16, 2016
If Saturday offered evidence of Sterling’s potential under Guardiola, Tuesday rested the case. Steaua Bucharest’s defending may have been as laughable as their social media activity, but City were rampant in attack. They scored five away goals, missed two penalties and hit the woodwork three times. So comfortable is City’s first leg lead, Guardiola could pick a reserve team. Joe Hart and Yaya Toure might even get a game. Not you, Eliaquim.
On the touchline, Guardiola flitted between exasperation and delight at City’s occasional lapses in defensive concentration and sparks in attack. The manager held his hands over his mouth in admiration at Aguero’s first goal and breathtaking interchange between Nolito, Sterling and the Argentinean.
It is in these moments that you see the potential in this City’s attack when honed by their new manager, and at times the gulf in quality was embarrassing. Aguero alone had ten shots, seven on target and scored three times. Has anyone ever scored a hat-trick and missed two penalties in the same game?
At the heart of City’s invention again, Sterling was superb in Romania. His quick feet earned Sergio Aguero’s first missed penalty, before a wonderful display of dribbling set up David Silva’s opening goal. By the half-time whistle, Sterling had assisted his third goal in four days in City’s two premier competitions. Last season’s entire total was four.
Trophies are not handed out in August, and nor too can reputations be transformed. City will face far tougher assignments than this along the way. Yet there are signs that, as with John Stones, Pep Guardiola can be the perfect manager to help Sterling maximise his obvious natural talent. England’s favourite scapegoat could become Manchester City’s favourite Englishman. It will be thanks in part to a Spaniard who could see beyond the headlines and the hisses.