EPL

How good is Raheem Sterling?

By Sports Desk March 24, 2021

Kevin De Bruyne's scintillating long-range strike against Borussia Monchengladbach last week was Manchester City's 100th goal of the season and maintained Pep Guardiola's record of his sides reaching a century in each of his 12 seasons in top-flight coaching.

At Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now at Manchester City, Guardiola the tactician is loath to go on the defensive.

However, whenever he feels the quality or worth of one of his players might have been called into question during a news conference, that position is second nature.

"He's an incredibly important player for us," the Catalan snapped back unequivocally when Raheem Sterling's declining output in front of goal was raised this year, two days after he put a penalty against Brighton and Hove Albion into orbit to prolong a lean spell of three goals in 18 games.

"Everything we have done in the past, without him would not have been possible."

Quite simply, that is a whole lot of everything.

Under Guardiola, City have won six major honours. They became the first team to reach the 100-points landmark when lifting the Premier League in 2017-18 and retained the title as part of an unprecedented domestic treble the following season.

A 14-point lead at the top of the table and next month's dates in the EFL Cup final and FA Cup semi-finals mean a clean sweep in England is once again a possibility as Borussia Dortmund await in the last eight of the Champions League.

One of the points of difference this time around is Guardiola's apparently assertion the past couple of weeks that more of the success he craves might be possible with Sterling confined to the margins.

After being defended by his manager in January, Sterling embarked upon a run of six goals in nine games across all competitions, including one in a deeply cathartic 4-1 win over former club Liverpool at Anfield and concluding with an early winner at Arsenal in February.

He has not added to a 13-goal haul in 2020-21 since and after, wasting two glorious late chances in the 2-0 derby defeat to Manchester United, Sterling was an unused substitute for the subsequent 5-2 win over Southampton.

That decision apparently prompted a row denied by both men – "nothing happened" said Guardiola, "FALSE" tweeted Sterling – after the England international was omitted from the travelling squad for a 3-0 win at Fulham.

It means, as Wednesday marks the ninth anniversary of the 26-year-old's top-flight debut, that one of the most impressive Premier League careers of the past decade has encountered some unusual on-field turbulence.

 

Chasing Shearer and Rooney

Aside from a tempestuous end to his final season at Liverpool as Sterling sought to leave and a patchy start at City as Manuel Pellegrini's tenure spluttered to an end, the winger's trajectory has aimed relentlessly upwards since Kenny Dalglish introduced him as a substitute against Wigan Athletic on March 24, 2012, aged 17 years and 107 days.

He has 144 direct goal involvements in 284 Premier League games, with 95 goals and 49 assists. Ranking all players in Premier League history before their 27th birthdays, this puts Sterling eighth – one place above David Beckham (128 goal involvements).

Wayne Rooney leads the way (215) from Alan Shearer (172), Harry Kane (163), Thierry Henry, Robbie Fowler (both 162), Michael Owen (156) and Romelu Lukaku (148), meaning a few of that esteemed group are within reach for Sterling before he turns 27 on December 8.

Overall, Shearer remains king, his all-time record haul of 260 Premier League goals among 325 goal involvements, ahead of Rooney on 311 (208 goals, 103 assists).

By all accounts, Sterling should be entering his peak years and is fractionally ahead of Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane (92 and 91 respectively) in the race to become the 30th member of the Premier League's 100 goals club.

Along with having the chance to join Rooney and Frank Lampard as the third dual goals and assists centurion in league history, Sterling's overall output means he will get close to Shearer and Rooney's levels if he can maintain it.

All of which makes Sterling's absence from a certain conversation fairly curious.

 

From #TheHatedOne to Premier League great?

In recent years, Manchester City bade fond farewells to the first batch of superstars that propelled the club's transformation from also-rans to trophy collectors.

When they departed, Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany and David Silva were all acclaimed as being among the very best in their positions to grace the division. Similar talk will accompany Sergio Aguero if, as looks increasingly likely, he leaves the Etihad Stadium when his contract expires in June.

De Bruyne is very much in the midst of his prime years, having joined City in the same 2015 close-season as Sterling, and is already spoken of in such terms.

But the notion of Raheem Sterling: Premier League great? Despite the numbers outlined above, it is a consideration seldom made.

This can be partly attributed to the vitriolic reaction that followed his Liverpool exit, which embedded poisonous and unfair perceptions of an ambitious young footballer.

"It just winds me up and angers me to the pit of my stomach," said Kop favourite Jamie Carragher of Sterling's desire to leave Anfield. John Aldridge declared a then 20-year-old "too young to think for himself", despite middle age seemingly not opening up such a capacity for the former striker.

Carragher, Aldridge and numerous other ex-Reds within the pundit class were speaking passionately in defence of the club they loved, but unfortunately with no regard for the abuse – both insidious and explicit – they helped to normalise.

Sterling was infamously dubbed "footie Idiot Raheem" in a Sun article – still available online, as it happens – following England's Euro 2016 exit against Iceland, where the City player won a penalty in a 2-1 defeat.

Earlier in the tournament, he labelled himself "#TheHatedOne" on social media. The vibrant performer from his Liverpool days began to return on the field under Guardiola, but the attitude from the terraces made it feel like Sterling had a point.

At grounds such as Turf Moor, the Hawthorns and the King Power Stadium, he was booed, despite no obvious rivalry existing between City and their opponents. For many there was grimly familiar discomfort and unease: surely it's not about that, is it?

Then, at Stamford Bridge in December 2018, Sterling was targeted by a group of home supporters, their faces contorted in anger. The incident led Chelsea to banning a fan for life for using "racially abusive language".

The day after the match, Sterling addressed the unequal media coverage given to black and white footballers in a social media post, and what this means to those on the receiving end. He remains a powerful voice in the fight against racism in football and society as a whole.

Sterling's status as a role model and an inspiration played a part alongside his phenomenal performances for treble-winning City as he was named 2018-19 FWA Footballer of the Year.

 

The surrounding and frequently vile noise accompanying his career in England is not something shared by Sterling's City counterparts. The stand he took after the Chelsea match will remain a defining time in his career and, in terms of performance analysis, it might be seen as the moment where all other noise faded into the background and a rare talent was given his due. 

There is, however, another elephant in the room when it comes to assessing Sterling's elite credentials. Or, more accurately, an elephant in the six-yard box.

Floored by missed sitters

The 2019-20 season was the most prolific of Sterling's career as he scored 31 times overall and hit 20 in the Premier League.

Nevertheless, it concluded with him somehow blazing over from four yards with City 2-1 down to Lyon in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. The Ligue 1 club soon led 3-1 and City were out – a nadir of the Guardiola era.

For a player who scores so frequently, Sterling's finishing remains maddeningly unreliable at times.

During City's 100-point season, Guardiola hauled him off after an implausible miss at Burnley and a couple of botched clear openings in that April Manchester derby, where City led 2-0 and lost 3-2, were a huge factor in the ultimate bragging rights of claiming a league title with victory over their bitter rivals going begging.

Then, despite contributing tirelessly to the collective effort, Sterling failed to score as England reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. It is impossible to imagine Rooney or Shearer doing likewise in similar circumstances, making that campaign an unhelpful anomaly in any pretentions to greatness.

So, is Sterling's finishing overall as bad as those forgettable moments suggest?

Since his debut, he is the fifth-highest scoring Premier League player on 95, behind Aguero (164), Harry Kane (159), Jamie Vardy (115) and Lukaku (113).

A shot conversion rate of 15.9 per cent tracks below that quartet, with Vardy the most efficient at 22.2 and Lukaku closest to Sterling on 16.7 per cent.

Of the 31 players to have scored 50 or more Premier League goals during that time, Sterling ranks around the middle of the pack, 15th overall in terms of shot conversion – Christian Benteke's tragicomic figure of 8.7 per cent conversion bring up the rear.

In terms of those defined by Opta as 'big chances', Sterling falls into the bottom third of the group in 22nd, having netted 66 and missed 83 over the course of his top-flight career for 44.3 percent.

This is perhaps what you'd expect from a man with a reputation for missing his share of high-profile sitters, but improvements over recent seasons show why he is still able to be on the trajectory of Shearer and Rooney for goal involvements.

The bulk of Sterling's Premier League goals came over the most recent three completed campaigns, with 18 in the 100-point season backed up by 17 to retain the title and 20 last time around – comfortably his three most prolific goalscoring seasons.

Each time, his shot conversion was above 20 per cent, with a high of 22 in 2018-19. The only other time he finished so efficiently was when scoring nine times from 45 attempts during Liverpool's surprise 2013-14 title tilt.

There has been a drop off this time around, with nine goals from 53 attempts amounting to a 17 per cent conversion rate, while he has missed two thirds of the big chances on offer (6/18).

On that metric, he tracked as high as 60 per cent in 2018-19, having registered 53.8 the season before – both success rates to rival any elite forward. Despite the overall strong returns of 2019-20, his big chance conversion rate dipped to 42.4 per cent.

 

The art of the tap-in merchant

This is another criticism some detractors like to level at Sterling: that he is a "tap-in merchant", who simply gorges on Guardiola's feast of football to pad his stats from close range.

But, as Gary Lineker is often keen to point out with a heavy helping of self-deprecation, if it were that easy then everyone would be doing it.

If the misses outlined above suggest a shortfall in Sterling's technique as a finisher, then his capacity to sniff out chances through intelligent and clinical movements stand as one of his main assets.

Throughout his City career, his shots-per-game average has ranged from between 2.3 to 3.3 when split by season. However, his expected goals (xG) figure per 90 minutes increased significantly in those three most prolific campaigns.

In 2017-18, his xG/90 was 0.56, set against 0.21 for Leroy Sane, City's other first-choice winger that year. Sane and Sterling had near-identical xG/90 scores of 0.28 and 0.27 during the previous season, Guardiola's first at the helm.

Despite averaging slightly more shots per game than Sterling in 2019-20 (3.4 to 3.3), Riyad Mahrez's xG/90 was 0.36 compared to his team-mate's 0.64.

This shows Sterling getting himself into notably better scoring areas, with a greater probability of finding the net, than team-mates playing in the same position. Even considering the fact Mahrez appears to have usurped Sterling in Guardiola's pecking order for now, his xG/90 is still half that of the England man in 2020-21 (0.21 vs 0.42).

If this suggests a notable tenacity and relentlessness around the opposition penalty area, Sterling's dribbling ability and productivity when carrying possession underlines the point.

Guardiola values forwards who can bring an unpredictable element to the possession-dominating foundations of his sides and Sterling certainly excels here, showing himself to be one of the most adept players in the division when it comes to running with the ball and making something happen.

Since joining City in 2015-16, he is ranked fifth (251) in the Premier League for shot involvements after a carry – meaning Sterling has either had a shot himself or set up a team-mate to do so.

As with his output in front of goal, Sterling's figures for carries and progressive carries are down this term, but a return to those levels seems comfortably within reach for a player of his age and ability.

At the risk of just loudly shouting, "KICK IT AT THE GOAL, RAHEEM!", he could also shoot more. An uneven return to the starting XI in Saturday's FA Cup win at Everton yielded four attempts on goal, a couple of them fairly wild.

That was up on his season average of 2.3 attempts per 90 minutes. And, if awful misses from close quarters is one of Sterling's main regrettable habits, taking too many touches and checking inside to be crowded out by defenders is another.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi average above five attempts per match. Obviously, there is a lot more to their majestic careers than just shooting a lot, but their continually handsome hauls show the value of a star forward backing themselves.

It feels like a relatively minor tweak that could take Sterling's game to the next level, when considering all his other demonstrable qualities.

A provocative newspaper interview with Marca last season, where he posed with a Real Madrid shirt, showed a man who thinks he belongs on the A-list and the returns of a nine-year Premier League career back that up. Being only the third player to score 100 goals under Guardiola after Messi and Aguero isn't bad, either.

With everything again possible for City on the other side of the international break, Sterling has the perfect platform to put a tricky couple of weeks behind him and step it up once more.

Related items

  • Australian Open: Swiatek seals semi-final spot after lengthy Kanepi battle Australian Open: Swiatek seals semi-final spot after lengthy Kanepi battle

    Iga Swiatek came through a huge battle against Kaia Kanepi to advance to the Australian Open semi-finals on Wednesday.

    Swiatek, the Polish seventh seed, made her second grand slam semi after a 4-6 7-6 (7-2) 6-3 victory over Kanepi on a warm day on Rod Laver Arena.

    The 2020 French Open champion held off Kanepi, who suffered a seventh defeat in as many grand slam quarter-finals.

    Swiatek fought hard and needed three hours, one minute to progress to a meeting with American 27th seed Danielle Collins.

    The steadier start was made by Swiatek, with Kanepi saving break points in each of her opening three service games.

    But the Pole was having some trouble with her serve, a fifth double fault giving Kanepi a break point in the seventh game, the Estonian converting with a fine forehand return winner.

    Swiatek held after a gruelling 16-minute ninth game, saving four set points as the Rod Laver Arena crowd started to come to life.

    Kanepi had won only one set in her six previous grand slam quarter-finals, but she eventually served out the opener against Swiatek, converting her ninth set point.

    After Kanepi broke in the opening game of the second set, Swiatek – who was starting to move the veteran around the court – reeled off four straight games.

    However, Kanepi responded, a pair of Swiatek double faults helping her break back in the seventh game on the way to a tie-break.

    Swiatek was the more consistent of the two players in the tie-break to send the quarter-final into a deciding set.

    After the players traded breaks early in the third set, Swiatek took a 3-2 lead after Kanepi sent a forehand narrowly wide before managing a tough hold in the sixth game.

    Swiatek charged into a 5-2 lead and while her attempt at serving it out did not go to plan, she sealed her win with another break after a tremendous defensive point.

     

    DATA SLAM: Swiatek hard to beat at majors

    It takes a fair bit to beat Swiatek at a grand slam.

    The 20-year-old is now 30-2 at majors against opponents ranked outside the top 30 after getting past world number 115 Kanepi.

    WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
    Swiatek – 31/50
    Kanepi – 35/62

    ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
    Swiatek – 5/12
    Kanepi – 5/4

    BREAK POINTS WON
    Swiatek – 6/13
    Kanepi – 5/13

  • Martial seals Man Utd exit with Sevilla loan Martial seals Man Utd exit with Sevilla loan

    Anthony Martial will play the remainder of the 2021-22 season on loan in LaLiga with Sevilla after falling out of favour at Manchester United.

    France international Martial has reportedly taken a pay cut to join the Andalusian club, who it is said will pay €6million for salary and a loan fee combined.

    United interim boss Ralf Rangnick revealed last month that Martial had asked to leave the club in January after struggling for first-team football following a return from injury.

    Rangnick then claimed in the wake of United's 2-2 Premier League draw with Aston Villa that Martial was not with the squad because he "didn't want" to be involved – the forward refuted those claims.

    While Rangnick drew a line under the situation, he hinted United were negotiating exits for several players ahead of the transfer deadline, and Sevilla's tactic of playing the long game has paid off.

    LaLiga's second-placed side were linked with Martial last month, but reports suggested they could not get anywhere near the player's wage demands, and United were seemingly unwilling to lower their own demands.

    But a breakthrough in negotiations has seen the clubs reach an agreement that Sevilla will hope significantly boosts their chances in LaLiga's title race.

    After 22 matches played, Sevilla are just four points behind leaders Real Madrid.

    Throughout January, they have been linked with forwards due to injuries and a general lack of goals scored – their 34 in LaLiga is the fewest of those in the top four and 13 behind Madrid's tally.

    Rafa Mir is their top scorer in the league despite a fairly underwhelming total of six in 20 appearances, with the pre-season arrival from Wolves struggling to pick up the slack for Youssef En-Nesyri, who has been absent through injury and Africa Cup of Nations duty.

    Sevilla will hope Martial can hit the ground running after the international break, but he may be lacking match sharpness given he has played the full 90 minutes of a game once all season and has played just eight minutes of football since Rangnick's first match in charge in early December.

  • Australian Open: Collins ends Cornet's run to reach semis Australian Open: Collins ends Cornet's run to reach semis

    Danielle Collins ended Alize Cornet's dream run and reached her second Australian Open semi-final with a straight-sets win on Wednesday.

    Collins moved into the last four in Melbourne for the second time in four years thanks to a 7-5 6-1 victory on Rod Laver Arena on Australia Day.

    The American 27th seed, who will face either Iga Swiatek or Kaia Kanepi in the semi-finals, was in solid form in warm conditions.

    Collins was the aggressor throughout against Cornet, who was playing her maiden grand slam quarter-final in her 63rd main-draw appearance.

    It was Collins who dictated the majority of points from the baseline early and landed a break of serve in the fourth game.

    Cornet saved three break points, but there was no denying Collins on her fourth opportunity, a powerful return setting up a simple volley winner for a 3-1 lead.

    Collins looked the more comfortable in the warm weather, but Cornet hung in there and broke back when her opponent was trying to serve out the first set, the American's backhand letting her down with three unforced errors.

    But Cornet dropped the first set when serving to stay in it, saving two set points but not a third – set up with a Collins forehand winner down the line – as she framed a forehand long.

    Collins crushed a forehand return winner to break serve in the second game of the second set to take complete control of proceedings.

    She broke to love to grab a 4-0 lead, cruising through the second set on her way to another last-four appearance in Melbourne.

     

    DATA SLAM: Contender Collins finding consistency

    The dangerous Collins has found consistency since the back end of last year.

    She is now 31-7 since July 12, 2021 and will be hard to stop by either Swiatek or Kanepi in the semi-finals.

    WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
    Collins – 28/29
    Cornet – 11/17

    ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
    Collins – 5/4
    Cornet – 2/0

    BREAK POINTS WON
    Collins – 4/9
    Cornet – 1/3

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.