Raheem “The Dream” Sterling
29 November 2017, On a frigid evening at the Etihad, Southampton’s Oriol Romeu looked as if he had earned a point for Southampton in the 75th minute when he tucked home from close range against Ederson. That canceled out City's opener, which came when Virgil van Dijk deflected a free kick from Kevin De Bruyne into his own net in the 47th minute. Coming into the match, City were beginning to flex on the entirety of the Premier League. They were boasting an 11 game winning streak, and about to shock the footballing world by going on to eventually set a BPL record of winning 18 games to start the season. In the sixth and final minute of stoppage time, Raheem Sterling came to the rescue yet again, as a well worked combination with PFA Player of The Year candidate Kevin DB gave Sterling the space he needed to curl in a heartbreaking effort from the top of the box, past a defeated Frasier Foster. Oof. 2-1, and that was that. I would say this is a moment we have all been waiting for, but Sterling and City have been giving us these moments in abundance so far this season.
While the versatile attacker contributed a rather muted performance 13 January 2018, against his former club Liverpool, resulting in City’s first loss of the campaign, Sterling is enjoying by far his best and most productive season of his career. As the talent has been there since he was scoring hat tricks in Liverpool’s youth team back in 2011, a consistent end product seemed to still be proving elusive for the Jamaican-born star.
In the world of art and entertainment, the word “talent” has always proven to be polarizing. The noun lends itself to immense amounts of expectation, praise, or scrutiny depending on whichever side of it one finds themselves on. This is no different in the world of sport, and in our case, football. In a sport that somehow finds itself becoming younger and younger, we are often finding ourselves becoming hyper-critical of young “starlets” who have garnered global hype and praise while still having yet to establish themselves as world-class or even consistent players clubs can build their teams around. This is an issue that seems to be highlighted in the BPL especially, as the league's off-the-field success has lead to inflated contracts and league transfer values. One shouldn’t have to look further than the likes of Andy Carroll, Luke Shaw, and Adam Lallana.
In England’s first division, this list of similar players continues to grow gradually, just like it’s narrative, as it subtly exposes the amount of players in the country who are failing to live up to the quality and international pedigree of their predecessor Wayne Rooney. A true world class player for the majority of his career, Rooney bodied the premier league for over a decade while setting countless records and becoming Manchester United’s all time leading goal scorer. Even past his prime, he has still found ways this season to inspire a disjointed Everton side with his production and grit.
Which brings us back to Raheem. During his time at Liverpool, we watched the forward rise onto the scene 24 March 2012, as Sterling made his senior Liverpool debut as a substitute in a league match against Wigan Athletic. At 17 years and 107 days old, he became the third-youngest player to play for the club and only featured twice more over the remainder of the campaign, again as a substitute. Over the course of the next two seasons we saw his game grow in impact and production, as he formed a lethal attacking trident with the league’s then top player in Luis Suarez, and a healthy Daniel Sturridge who may have been entering the form of his career. When Suarez left to FC Barcelona after the World Cup in 2014, expectations for Sterling grew a bit feverishly. After a strong performance in his first World Cup competition that year, Sterling was awarded the prestigious Golden Boy, which is given by sports journalists to the “best” U21 football player playing in Europe over the course of the year. As accompanying rumors of the player leaving to Real Madrid and Manchester City arrived seemingly on queue, an under pressure Brendan Rodgers struggled at times to get the best out a 19-year-old Sterling and an underwhelming Liverpool squad fresh off of the title letdown of the previous campaign and the loss of the talismanic Luis Suarez. As reports grew of a rift between Sterling and Rodgers, as well as a potential departure to City in the summer transfer window of 2015, expectations grew hastily alongside them. While Sterling shone brightly at times over the course of the campaign, the shoes left behind by Suarez proved to be a bit too big, and an injury plagued season for England international Daniel Sturridge lead to compounding amounts of pressure on Raheem. Ultimately, Liverpool finished the season in sixth, twelve points off of Champions League qualification and all eyes pointed to an under fire Brendan Rodgers as well as a young and slightly petulant Sterling. The contract dispute and eventual falling out between both parties proved almost predictable, with a move away from the Merseyside club seeming inevitable.
When Manchester City came calling on July 12, 2015, questions arose from football publications and pundits alike. Is a 19-year-old really worth 45 Million pounds after a season where his production across all competitions regressed? Did he owe Liverpool one or two more seasons of loyalty? Will he follow in the disappointing footsteps of fellow British players such as Shawn Wright Phillips and Theo Walcott? These inquiries proved to be harsh at times, with some coming from former players and coaches who are clearly out of touch with the modern game and its challenges. With that being said, some of these insights have stemmed from those who clearly only want to see the young lad succeed and meet his potential, as so many before him have failed to do. His debut campaign at City proved to be a season of firsts as Sterling scored his first competitive goal for Manchester City - in a 2–0 defeat of Watford at the the City of Manchester Stadium and also scored his first career hat-trick as City beat Bournemouth 5–1 on 17 October. On 3 November, Sterling scored his first UEFA Champions League goal in a 1–3 win at Sevilla. Though the 2015/2016 season got off to a good start for the attacker, it unfortunately would not end as such. Raheem failed to sustain his form in an underperforming City side that seemed distracted by the looming and eventual departure of then coach Manuel Pelligrini. Two-thirds into the season, in a loss to rivals Manchester United, Sterling picked up a groin injury that would ultimately cast him out of a spot in the starting lineup, giving the media a whole new slew questions and judgements on his development heading into the summer. While the 2016/2017 campaign may have brought new doubts, it also brought along the ingenuity, personality, and influence of Pep Guardiola.
While we all know of Guardiola’s reputation as a master tactician and scholar of the game, not enough has been said about my man’s player management skills. Of course, the 14 trophies in four seasons he won with FC Barcelona made him the most successful coach in the club’s history, but his eye for talent paired with his ability to nurture it should be deemed almost as impressive. Look no further than Pedro Rodriguez, a player that may not have had the talent that Sterling has in abundance, but one that benefited from the teachings of Guardiola and the world-class players that surrounded him. In 2009/2010, Pep confirmed that Pedro would be promoted to Barcelona's first team and he responded with a breakthrough year, during which he became the first player to score in six different club competitions across a single season and in the same year. 99 goals and 20 trophies later, it’s hard to argue with Pedro's development, killer instinct, and understanding of the game.
As the 2016/2017 season wore on, in a team that clearly struggled to adjust to the exceptionally high standard that is Pep football, Sterling had a bounce back season, registering 10 goals and 16 assists. Even more importantly, the development mentally and off the field was evident, and all of the hard work was beginning to pay dividends. With more intelligent off-the-ball movement, Sterling was finally learning how to impact the game for himself and his teammates with less of the ball at his feet.
Now at 23, Sterling is enjoying his best season to date. We are all witnessing the consistent impact, industry, and hunger in his game that should justify all of the hype as well price tag that City paid Liverpool for his services. With 21 goals and 5 assists across all competitions at the halfway mark of this season, he has already eclipsed the entirety of his offensive output while at Liverpool. As ironic as it was to see his former club hand Guardiola and Man City their first loss of the BPL campaign, it’s hard to see anyone slowing them down. As the 2018 World Cup awaits this summer, we wait patiently to see how Sterling will take what he has learned from his experiences this season to help drive the England national side deep into the knockout rounds on the biggest stage of all.