Heading into the European Championships last summer, Raheem Sterling was at a low ebb. Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City manager, was cryptically discussing his squad size and the fact he couldn’t keep everybody happy. The insinuation at the time was that players would have to be sold, and those who were mentioned in the press constantly included Bernardo Silva, Gabriel Jesus and Sterling.
To make matters worse for the winger, when everybody was mocking up their starting teams for the tournament, desperate to fit Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Mason Mount in the side, he was the man viewed as the most vulnerable to that possibility. But Gareth Southgate rewards those he trusts, and the England boss stuck with Sterling for the opening match against Croatia; by the end of that game, a 1-0 victory, the entire discourse surrounding the player had flipped. He scored the winner, delivering once again as he so often has on the international stage under the current regime.
One month on, after England had fought all the way to the final, which they lost on penalties to Italy, Sterling was named in the Team of the Tournament and he was viewed as indispensable. Although fans had railed against Southgate’s perceived under use of Grealish, who so many wanted to see feature, Sterling’s performances couldn’t be argued with. It was never painted as an either or type choice, but he had won that battle. As it turned out, he would have to fight it all over again, all season long back at City after Grealish joined from Aston Villa in the first £100m deal for an English player.
But of course Sterling was confident; he was flying. After a tough time the previous season, he was back to his goalscoring best, the player who had perhaps best encapsulated Guardiola’s coaching and the improvement it brings. Both at Liverpool and City in the season he had under Manuel Pellegrini, he was explosive, but erratic; somebody who struggled for the composed streak that Guardiola demands from his forwards, particularly his wide men. By 2018, when he was celebrating his first Premier League title, Guardiola had no such problem with Sterling. He’d scored 18 goals, a tally bettered by only one season since; most of them were ruthless finishes from close range at the back post; a monument to his development in ruthlessness and efficiency.
That early City team needed Sterling to thrive; he was part of the key component alongside Leroy Sane on the opposite wing. Guardiola looked to ‘tilt’ the pitch by overloading in attack on one side, dragging opponents out of position, and switching the play to the free man at the back post. But by last season, when Guardiola had implemented a system with no recognised striker and a more creative blend between midfield and attack, it wasn’t a surprise to see Sterling struggle a little more. He ended that season with 10 league goals, half the amount of the previous campaign, having played just two games fewer.
That explains Guardiola’s desire to sign Grealish, another technical footballer proficient in unlocking doors with the ball at his feet and his eye for a pass, unlike Sterling’s pace. Sane is long gone, too, which may have escalated the change. While Sterling has improved on his tally, scoring 13 goals this term, it was neither he nor Grealish who became a mainstay. Instead, Bernardo Silva, another player who was close to the end last year, has stepped up.
But now Sterling is back where he was before the Euros. The speculation is rife as Bayern Munich, who have also been in for Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, and clubs in Spain, are interested. Now 27, and with his contract running out in a year’s time, now might be the time City do choose to cash in. He has spoken previously about not being a starter in Guardiola’s side; you sense this is a big summer and, whichever way, there will be a decision made.
There is still a role for him, though. Part of the issue with Grealish this term, as he struggled to get to grips with Guardiola’s ideals like many before him, is he hasn’t shown that killer instinct. Even if the focus of the team has shifted, getting into the box to finish from byline crosses is still a key form of attack. Too often, he has played a part in the build up and not moved in to finish; that has been a common theme. It is far too early to write him off, but that is an area of his game that needs improvement next season.
As for Sterling, he may be approaching a career crossroads. But he is still a huge player for England and, if he is to leave City, he will do so as a much better player than when he arrived.