Sterling role-reversal begs one key question: What next?

Date published: Tuesday 21st September 2021 7:06 - Dave Tickner

Raheem Sterling of Manchester City shows his disappointment against Southampton

Never more crucial to England but never less vital for Manchester City. Does Raheem Sterling need a change of approach or club?

Raheem Sterling’s career has hit another pivotal moment.

He’s gone from being an integral part of an excellent club with worries over his international future to an integral part of an excellent international team with worries over his club future.

Saturday’s goalless draw with Southampton was alarming in many ways for Manchester City, whose failure to muster a shot on target until the final minute was…unexpected. And it’s not the sort of stat you want to see when given an increasingly rare chance for a Premier League start as a number nine, even a false one.

It’s a blunt weapon, but Sterling has now started twice for City this season, in two appearances that account for 160 of his 247 Premier League minutes this season.

Those two games have seen City fail to score a single goal. In three games where Sterling made cameo appearances off the bench, City scored 11 (Sterling himself netting the fourth in the 5-0 win over Norwich).


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It’s not necessarily much to worry about in and of itself – and had Sterling not strayed offside in the final moments against Southampton things would feel rather different – but it is the continuation of a longer trend. Sterling managed just ten Premier League goals last season. In the previous three seasons, Sterling scored 55 times and racked up 31 assists.

The specifics are hard to fathom. The output is down, his significance to City is on the wane and while it’s hard to precisely pinpoint what it is, he has a strangely peripheral feel when he plays for his club.

Raheem Sterling

Which is once precisely how he looked at international level. Yet at a time when he looks vaguely lost at club level he has never been more integral to England than he is right now. That international record is enough to dismiss any notion that things cannot change for Sterling at club level, too. Having endured a 26-game international goal drought up to the end of the 2018 World Cup, Sterling has played another 26 games for England since. Those games have brought 16 goals and 11 assists and he was by common consent the standout player in the team’s run to the Euros final.

Rio Ferdinand has urged Liverpool to re-sign Sterling “tomorrow” which, while in clear breach of longstanding transfer window regulations, is pretty understandable and would certainly be an interesting development given the calm, measured way Sterling’s departure from Anfield was handled in 2015. Ditto the shy and retiring Ferdinand’s suggestion that if Liverpool don’t move for him then Manchester United should.

While neither side appears to have an aching need for another tricky attacker, you can see why Sterling’s current situation would attract attention from everyone outside the Etihad.

He’s still only 26. He’s proven what he can do in the Premier League, while his current output in international football should assuage any fears that Sterling’s current funk at City is indicative of any terminal decline.

It may not be a move away that Sterling requires. But he needs something. This current malaise at club level is starting to linger for uncomfortably long. International breaks do seem to come around every five minutes these days, but man cannot live on international football alone.

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