Why Raheem Sterling will be Pep Guardiola's perfect forward at Manchester City
Pep Guardiola's arrival at Manchester City has been in the stars for a long time. The Catalan is the modern game's most celebrated winner, and his new club's infrastructure has largely been built around the same principles which have allowed him to succeed.
Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain were recruited for their Barcelona DNA, the club's state-of-the-art academy drew a strong influence from La Masia and, therefore, it's accurate to depict Guardiola as the final component in a mechanism which has been built to accommodate him.
He is also a serial winner and a coach revered by almost every player within the game's elite category. His appointment has given life to all sorts of tantalising recruitment possibilities and extended City's reach – as if it weren't long enough. But, tempting as it to speculate as to who could follow Guardiola, maybe the most intriguing question relates to what he might be able to do with an asset he'll inherit: Raheem Sterling.
Solid not spectacular
While already a potential match-winner, he lacked the glint of a consistently influential player. Manchester City, then, was rightly identified as an environment in which he could grow
Sterling has had a modest first season. He has occasionally sparkled with the ability which commanded that £49m transfer fee, but he has more often laboured under its weight; last summer was protracted and spirit sapping, and he is yet to completely emerge from under that acrimony.
Sterling left Liverpool during a formative stage of his education. While already a potential match-winner, he lacked the glint of a consistently influential player. Manchester City, then, was rightly identified as an environment in which he could grow in the company of the game's glitterati and, over time, evolve into the rounded, game-changer that he's so capable of becoming.
This year has been a misfire. City's attacking unit has been beset with injury, their midfield is in an odd state of flux and, latterly, Manuel Pellegrini's authority has been eroded by his impending departure.
Sterling has been underwhelming, but then so has everything to do with City this year. It's part culture, part performance: they are a club in managerial limbo and have a squad in urgent need of modernisation. Guardiola will know that and act upon it.
While the winger is commonly seen as a traditional attacking weapon - one who takes on players, provides assists and score goals - his core strengths are really more subtle
Pep’s approach is so diligent that his style often invites very dense tactical description. Even without diving deep into the jargon, it's tempting to assume that he and Sterling will be suited to one another.
While the player is typically viewed as a traditional attacking weapon – one who takes on players, provides assists and score goals – his core strengths are really more subtle. Sterling is positionally very disciplined and adept at helping his side maintain their attacking shape. But, perhaps more importantly, he moves extremely well: not just with the ball, but without it.
Guardiola may never have managed in the Premier League before, but won't change to suit his environment: City will be shaped around his existing core beliefs.
At Barcelona and, more recently, Bayern Munich, he obviously prioritised retention of the ball, but not just for the sake of possession. His sides traditional begin moves with 15-pass sequences in which the opposing team are contorted out of their defensive shape and, then, by using movement ahead of the ball, seek to exploit spare-man opportunities in advanced areas with tight, quick passing.
One of the reasons why Arjen Robben has enjoyed a late-career renaissance under Guardiola is because of this; the Dutchman is very sly without the ball and obviously extremely dynamic with it.
While not directly comparable, Chelsea’s Pedro benefited in much the same way at Barcelona. Although not an equal talent to Leo Messi, Thierry Henry or David Villa, he became highly valuable because of his ability to locate and exploit pockets of space – his goal in the 2011 Champions League Final being a particularly pertinent example.
Selected to stretch Manchester United's defensive shape, create space for others and take advantage of the gaps which resulted from defenders being drawn to more obvious threats, he drifted away from Nemanja Vidic in the first half, received Xavi's smart through-ball and drilled the ball inside Edwin van der Sar's near post.
It may have looked like bad defending, but the chaos Barcelona capitalised on that night was really of their own creation. Every side has their breaking point and the teams which Guardiola has built have typically been very efficient at finding it. That Pedro goal was the seminal moment of the player's career, but it was also typical of the spare-man situations which he often found himself within; it's not a coincidence that so many of his Barcelona goals during that era look so similar.
Neither their midfield nor full-back tandem are equipped to conform to Guardiola's ideology, but Sterling is exactly the sort of inside-forward who is
Whether Guardiola can recreate the success that he's enjoyed elsewhere will depend on more than just a single player and, at present, neither their midfield nor full-back tandem are equipped to conform to his ideology.
But Sterling is exactly the sort of inside-forward who is. Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne may offer a more literal attacking threat, but the England man has the potential to become the most subtly valuable; he not only owns the light, velvety technique to contribute to multiple phases, but also the intellectual craft and athleticism to dart into the spaces which that style of play invariably opens.
There are players who command constant defensive attention and must always be closed down or tightly marked, and those who take instruction and position themselves intelligently enough to capitalise on the the structural breakdowns and overloads which occur.
That isn't to say that Sterling is a pure opportunist or that he simply feeds off the work of superior talent. While this season might not have produced the desired high points, it has still in places been testament to his ability: his driving run and delayed pass at Goodison Park which allowed Aleksandar Kolarov to open the scoring; his arcing sidefoot against Borussia Monchengladbach, and his role in the build to City's second goal in Kiev. These, in addition to a mini-reel of short-range goals, evidenced his eclectic influence.
Excellent movement, good decisions and economic football; Sterling has tendencies which are transferable throughout multiple phases of the game and into several different areas of the pitch. Combine that with Guardiola's obsessive penchant for adapting his forward line around an opponent's weaknesses, and there's the potential for a highly productive relationship.
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At this stage of his career, Sterling is still a raw asset. Manuel Pellegrini has extracted a degree of value from him and, at times, he has been impressive. But Guardiola's arrival will marry him to a coach whose success is derived from meticulous preparation and an fondness for football's minute detail.
As a young player, Sterling will clearly benefit from that guidance but, more saliently, he possesses the hidden traits which should make him his new manager's tactical muse. Guardiola prefers discipline to flair and he prioritises responsibility over free-wheeling individualism. Beneath his shiny veneer, that's really who Raheem Sterling is as a player.
He's soft clay that is yet to be kiln-fired, so who better to handle him now than a coach to whom he's so obviously suited.