For all his goal scoring ability, Pep Guardiola cannot trust his forward to deliver at clutch moments in the biggest games
Raheem Sterling made a dart in behind Vincent Kompany to receive an angled pass from Luis Suárez. His first touch, with the outside of his right foot, took him outside the line of the right-hand post, some 12 yards from goal, with Kompany and Joe Hart between him and the net. He turned back inside, opening an angle to curl a left-footed finish between Hart and Pablo Zabaleta into the bottom corner. Hart shuffled and Kompany closed in, only for Sterling to jink back and roll the ball through an implausibly large gap into the right side of the goal.
That was the opener in Liverpool’s 3-2 win over Manchester City in April 2014 but what makes it memorable was not just that it was a vital goal in the title race, rather the way Sterling conjured space where none had seemed to exist. It was that goal, more than anything, that led to the inflated expectations on Sterling going into the World Cup.
This was something unusual in an England player: who else has had the ability to do something quite so audacious, has had such coolness, such confidence in their technique? In the harum-scarum, hustle-and-bustle of the English game, Sterling seemed unique – and that in a player who was quick and a fine dribbler as well.
Eight years on, that moment seems illusory. The temptation is to doubt initial interpretations. Did Sterling really send Hart and Kompany the wrong way with a feigned shot? Or did they simply fail to anticipate him checking back on to his favoured right foot (only 30 of his 109 Premier League goals have come with his left)? With hindsight, perhaps that isn’t a deft change of direction, but an awkward drag to his stronger side that proved deceptive precisely because it was not the sort of thing top-class forwards would usually do when a clear shooting opportunity had opened up.
There has been little sense since that Sterling has that iciness of vision; he is not some English Bergkamp. But what is he? As the reaction of many Chelsea fans to his possible signing have made clear, for a player who has been a regular presence in four title-winning sides, who was England’s most consistent attacking player as they reached the final of the Euros, he generates a lot of scepticism.
Sterling’s stats for completed passes and dribbles, for shot creation and for expected goals plus assists are all excellent, while he scores highly for tackles and interceptions as a forward in a team that habitually dominates the ball. But there are times, especially when he is slightly out of form, when it is precisely the composure that seemed to be demonstrated by that goal against City that deserts him.
There are a number of compilations on YouTube of Sterling misses, one of them stretching to over seven minutes. Watching it is a disorienting experience: at first it seems cruel – often he is under pressure or the cross is just too far ahead of him – but gradually an undeniable picture builds. Sterling does miss a lot of chances, but then most forwards do. The effort he fired over an open goal against Lyon in the Champions League in 2020, though, stands out, as does a flat-footed dither in the World Cup semi-final against Croatia.
Yet his shooting accuracy is 41%. That’s poorer than roughly comparable players such as Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah, but not by much. And he is, at the age of 27, already the joint-26th scorer in Premier League history (level with Ryan Giggs, whose shooting accuracy was 36%).
Of course there are myriad quibbles: Sterling plays for a team – Manchester City – that scores a lot of goals, and many of his shots are essentially tap-ins arriving on to a cut-back at the end of the classic City move. The 41% statistic does not tell you how often he scuffed an effort straight at the keeper. But even with all that, Sterling is clearly a very good all-round modern forward.
But is that enough? For Manchester City, it may not be. Sterling should be just coming into his prime. It’s understandable if, with a year left on his contract, he is keen to explore his options for what should be his biggest deal. But given City’s resources, it is hard to believe this is an issue of matching his demands; if they really wanted him, they could afford him.
City are not short of attacking options, even with the departure of Gabriel Jesus. Erling Haaland and Julián Álvarez have been signed to go with Mahrez, Foden and Jack Grealish, with Cole Palmer now 20 and likely to be more of a factor next season.
Sterling played more minutes in the forward line than any other City player last season, but it may be that he is the one seen as expendable. They may also be feeling that Sterling has reached his ceiling. He has spent six years playing under Pep Guardiola: where, say, Grealish is still learning the system, Sterling probably has little more room for improvement.
Every slight doubt cast on Sterling’s ability must be caveated by an acknowledgement that these are only criticisms within the incredibly rarefied world City and he inhabit, but there may be a feeling that what he offers is not what City need.
Sterling essentially guarantees 10-20 league goals a season plus five-10 assists: most teams would benefit from that. But City score a lot of goals anyway: what they need is somebody who can help them at clutch moments in the biggest European games. Imagine Sterling clean through in the final minute at the Bernabéu: would you back him to score? Guardiola’s answer was perhaps implicit in the fact Sterling started neither leg of last season’s semi-final against Real Madrid.
That doesn’t mean that Sterling cannot be a success at Chelsea, Tottenham or Real Madrid or any of the clubs that have been linked with him. He consistently links well with Harry Kane for England. But it is to say that it’s understandable that City should decide against offering an exorbitant new deal. The unique magic of April 2014 feels a long time ago now.