December 8th, 2015. Raheem Sterling scores a brace in the UEFA Champions League against Borussia Monchengladbach, putting Manchester City at the top of their group on his 21st birthday; a night he described as the best in his young career.
Fast forward to summer 2016. Sterling's wage and inflated transfer fee is constantly talked about as the new manager, Pep Guardiola, settles into Manchester. City's expensive attack force went relatively flat for long spells last season as the Sky Blue's struggled for fourth place. Sterling, among others, is at the heart of the team's criticism for their inability to play up to the public's perceived potential. Various insults are leveled at the twenty-one-year-old as his social media's are plastered on every tabloid.
Those who don't speak about his private life mention his statistics as a palpable indicator of their claims, but eleven goals and ten assists in his debut season is consistent with the numbers he had been putting up during his two big seasons at Liverpool, (13/14 and 14/15), and although many would assume that the jump to a new club would ensure an improvement on those statistics, a closer look might tell us why they haven't improved right away.
Sterling, along with many other Manchester City players last season, struggled due to the lack of tactical aptitude from both the club and head coach. Though we may never know the full truth, City are said to have been in agreement, at least to some extent, with Guardiola since 2010. However, their play style for the majority of the time since the Sheik Mansour takeover has been primarily based on counter-attacking football. Manuel Pellegrini's debut season heavily attests to that as well as the myriad of interviews from the Chilean that state he had little interest in defending or other aspects of the game that didn't include "scoring more goals than the other team."
Scoring has been the only emphasis at Manchester City throughout the past few years, and there's nothing wrong with that. Even in the muck and mire of what was an underwhelming 2015/16 season, Manchester City still scored more goals than any other Premier League team and have done so since the 13/14 season. The difference with last year's season is that they tried to transition towards a possession system with a manager that didn't understand how to implement that style of play.
Whether it was to save some player turnover or prescreen some of the squad's compatibility with that type of play, it backfired. City averaged 55% overall possession; the third highest in the league. Of that 55% average possession, they held the second highest statistic of 31% of their possession in the opposition's third of the field. While 31% percent of their total possession taking place in the opposition's third may seem like a good thing, the team is created 57 fewer chances than the previous year, and 58 in comparison to the year before that. City have had a massive dropoff in chance creation, goals, and shots compared to the 13/14 and 14/15 seasons. Not only have those statistics dropped, but the percentage of shots from inside the 18-yard box last season was the lowest of the past three years at 55%.
All of these metrics are telling and can be delved further into by certain expected goals models, but that's a separate issue. The case and point being that Manuel Pellegrini's forced focus on more strangulating possession without the ability to implement it correctly decreased the team's total goal production by a significant margin, and was specifically a detriment to Raheem Sterling.
Sterling's play style can be described as a classic winger's type, dragging defenders out wide and using his pace and individual skill to create a chance or have a shot at goal himself. The stifling of his creativity was partially due to the overbearing and relatively ineffective possession that Manchester City were victim to. Without delving too far into the issues that Pellegrini suffered, the purpose of most possession systems lies within the effectiveness of the passing. Most may discern the abundance of passing and possession as useless, and under someone like Pellegrini it was, but under the right manager, each pass should shift the other team ever so slightly, so as to gradually unlock the opposition without them even realizing it.
Spacing was a huge issue in regards to possession last year. Often times the majority of the team would be far forward, yet no one was making dynamic movements through the defense. Pep Guardiola's 'Juego de posicion' targets shifting the opposition through intelligent and purposeful passing, along with an emphasis on spacing and positional discipline. There was no focus on keeping an offensive shape or a general regard for overloading one spot under Pellegrini. This often lead to multiple defenders being able to double or even triple team a player like Sterling when he was on the ball.
Guardiola's tactical changes will allow for Sterling and the other Manchester City forwards to get into better attacking positions instead of getting stuck in stagnant possession. If these issues are fixed, which under Guardiola they most likely will be, then there are many reasons to believe Sterling can flourish under Pep.
The former Liverpool player's inclination and capacity to create chances out wide, in conjunction with the ability to make intelligent runs and contribute to link up play makes him an ideal candidate for Guardiola's system. A significant portion of the players that have flourished under the former Barcelona manager have been wide players because of his attention to detail in regards to positional structure. Players like Arjen Robben, Douglas Costa, David Villa, and even Lionel Messi early on in his career as a right winger would not have been as successful if it weren't for the managerial brilliance the Catalan boss brings to his teams. Width is a vital component in the style of football Pep will seek to implement at Manchester City, and Sterling is the perfect candidate for this role.
Some may point to Nolito and Sané as a threat to Sterling position, but it's a well-known fact that since Guardiola is always competing on at least four different fronts he likes to have a rotational squad to minimize the chance of overload injuries and fatigue. In addition to all of this, an article in The Guardian claims Pep was consulted on the purchase of the Liverpool forward prior to the finalization of the deal and intends to make him a big part of his plans. However, despite this fairly legitimate confirmation that the new manager sees great potential in Sterling and plans to try to bring the best out of him, the naysayers continue to drone on about how the winger will most certainly lose his spot as the campaign to mold the public image of Raheem Sterling gets more and more ridiculous.
The fact of the matter is, whether you like him or not, Sterling has been one of the best young players in the world throughout the past few seasons. There aren't many non-striking U21's that are producing his sort of attacking numbers, let alone in what is said to be the most competitive league in the world. This, along with the bevy of other reasons provided, is why this Sterling individual will only continue to rise.