Raheem Sterling insists he isn’t particularly worried about facing his old club Liverpool when Manchester City travel to Wembley for the League Cup final at the end of February, but when that date has passed and the end of his first season at the Etihad winds down, he will be gearing up for a defining moment in his still infant career.
Now an established England international Sterling will expect a place in Roy Hodgson’s squad for this summer’s European Championships in France and then, once players start returning to their clubs for the new campaign in the late summer, he will be preparing to impress Pep Guardiola during pre-season.
The announcement of Guardiola as the successor to Manuel Pellegrini’s departure at the end of this season has bred much speculation over how the Spaniard plans to overhaul a team that, despite still being in the hunt for all four trophies this term, have been misfiring and over-reliant on an ageing group of players.
Main feature of a bright future
Sterling, still only 21, is not one of those and the £49 million that City paid to lure him away from Anfield suggests that they, together with Guardiola who has been in talks with City since 2012 according to the club, see the winger as a main feature of a bright future.
It has been reported that a significant part of the negotiations to take Sterling up the A580 last summer was City’s reassurance to his agent Aidy Ward that his client would soon be playing for Guardiola, the manager who last May wanted Sterling to replace Franck Ribery at Bayern Munich.
As a wide player blessed with versatility, pace, quick-feet and the intelligence to make incisive runs, Sterling can be tailor-made for Guardiola having already experienced life in a high-octane pressing attacking trio alongside Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez at Liverpool.
The defensive awareness he has honed under Pellegrini will also please his new coach, the League Cup semi-final with Everton showcasing the two sides of Sterling; the diligent side that tracked Gerard Deulofeu and the dangerous, creative side that sparked into life once the Spaniard was taken off. It was he who burst at John Stones to cross for the Kevin De Bruyne goal that swung the tie in City’s favour and that decisiveness in the box will appeal to Guardiola.
His age and his obvious qualities will buy him considerably more time to play his way into Guardiola’s plans than, say, the waning Yaya Toure who the Spaniard sold at Barcelona when the midfielder was approaching the height of his powers.
Jesus Navas, a direct straight-lines runner with inconsistent end-product, the anathema to Guardiola, is likely to be dispensed with pretty quickly, as is the cumbersome Wilfried Bony.
With Kelechi Iheanacho promising but still in the nascent stages of his time at City and question marks even held against the likes of Sergio Aguero, so prolific in the Premier League yet continuously torn by injury, and the majestic David Silva, creative but perhaps ill-fitting to the high-pressing game Guardiola espouses, the only players who can be near-certain of a place in Guardiola’s attack-line will be De Bruyne and Sterling as his wide-men.
If Sterling is included in City’s bright new Catalan-ran era, then the new manager would be correct to expect more than the 5 goals and 2 assists the winger has returned from 21 appearances in the league, often appearing subdued in the matches that require City to break-down compact opposition at home.
His best performances however have been saved for the European scene, with man of the match displays and goals coming in Sevilla and at home to Borussia Monchengladbach where he was preferred to Bony in a central role, scored twice and then set up Silva with a sublime back-heel.
With Aguero returning to red-hot form Sterling as a false-nine is not something that Pellegrini has been able to reproduce often but it will be a viable option to the man who defied convention to trailblaze that position with Lionel Messi at Barcelona and who converted full-backs Phillip Lahm and David Alaba to domineering centre-midfielders in Munich.
Somewhat naive, but with vast potential
Out wide Sterling still gives the impression of naivety, a player accustomed to running down too many blind alleys, he is City’s best dribbler but is second only to Aguero in terms of losing the ball having been dispossessed 43 times, but he has attempted 44 shots, behind Toure and Aguero who have taken 62 each. There can be wastefulness and poor decisions but there is certainly vast potential for Guardiola to work with.
There is a clear reason why City spent big on Sterling, the same as why they have opted to pay Guardiola a salary of £15 million having coveted him for the past three years, but so far it has been shown in only sporadic glimpses at the Etihad. It will be the new manager’s job to fine-tune the winger into the irrepressible force his potential suggests he can be.
He has done it many times before with those willing to follow his instructions. It will be up to Sterling to do that and if he does, then City will reap the rewards for years to come.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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