Constant success is a double-edged sword for footballers. With Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi breaking all manner of top-level European records on the goalscoring front, we have become accustomed elite players constantly outdoing themselves, to the point where we may actually start to ignore their greatness. Perhaps no footballer this season provides a better example of that than Raheem Sterling.
When Sterling first started to become a regular goalscorer under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage, it was quite the compelling story. Here was a £49m signing who had previously flattered to deceive, slated by sections of the English media for unsavory reasons finally finding his feet under a legend of the managerial game.
So, why isn’t it a story anymore?
Granted, the goalposts have shifted in this Manchester City team. While the sight of them sitting atop the Premier League is barely anything new these days, the manner in which they are dominating teams has changed.
Recently described as the ‘Great Containers’, Guardiola’s side have shifted focus somewhat and rely on their defensive shape to win games, naturally affording Raheem Sterling fewer chances to match his previous goalscoring tallies.
However, that doesn’t mean the goals he has scored are any less important. This season alone, six of his thirteen strikes (61.5%) have directly resulted in his team winning a game. While he has had better campaigns on the goalscoring front, he has never amassed such a clinical ratio.
For example, only 25% of his thirty-one goals last season were decisive. 32% the year before that. 26% in 2017-18, the campaign widely considered to have been his breakthrough in front of goal.
At the time of writing, exactly half of the shots he has taken this season have hit the target, a ratio bettered only by Bernado Silva who takes them on a far less frequent basis. Gone are the days where Raheem Sterling would seem to panic in the final third, he is now an efficient shooting machine.
In front of empty arenas, he has blocked out the noise. That begs the question: why isn’t he being talked about as a potential PFA Player of the Year?
That, unfortunately, is the blind eye we turn to brilliance. When we’ve seen something before, it simply isn’t as interesting the second time around. Context is a precious commodity when it comes to how we consume football, after all. The explosion is always more interesting than the aftermath.
The tallies themselves aren’t outstanding but the underlying numbers behind them speak to a player hitting another level. City produce fewer chances these days but, thankfully for them, Raheem Sterling has taken his game up a notch. When his team needed a striker, he effectively became one. Without Sergio Aguero, Sterling stepped up.
Should Guardiola and his team romp to a third league title in four years – as is looking increasingly likely – the likes of John Stones, Ruben Dias and Joao Cancelo are likely to receive many of the plaudits such has been the radical shift in defensive set-up.
Indeed, Ilkay Gundogan may even get a mention after his purple patch in front of goal at the turn of the year and beyond. Sterling, you feel, will largely go unnoticed by those outside of City.
That is just as much a reflection on how we consume football (though there is, of course, no right or wrong way to do that) as much as it is about how much is simply expected of Raheem Sterling these days. This has been his year. This has truly been the season in which he proved himself as a game-changer.
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