Raheem Sterling: England and Man City star moves onto another level after showing complete understanding of game
The 24-year-old shone for the Three Lions in the 5-3 win over Kosovo to demonstrate his ability as an elite forward
For someone as measured with his words as Gareth Southgate, it was strikingly effusive.
And yet Southgate could still have gone further.
Because the Kosovan defence – or, really, the whole team – found him completely unstoppable. In running through them at will, Sterling also ran the game. His surges were the direct source of three of England’s five goals, having also nodded the equaliser.
That was Sterling’s second headed goal of the season, reflecting the improvement in his movement, and one of many reasons he has moved onto another level.
It’s difficult to think of a European player that has escalated in performance level as much as the Manchester City star over the last year. And just as he has entered his prime – and started operating at that truly elite standard – it has naturally followed that he has become England’s most important player. This is not to diminish Harry Kane, but the bald fact is that Sterling’s contribution to the overall attacking movement of the team currently surpasses that of the Tottenham Hotspur striker.
Sterling just brings so much together, ties so much together to then unleash it, and all because he has got to that point the top players do when it all just comes together for them.
It has clicked.
One figure familiar with how City work says a key to this is how Sterling now has “a complete understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses”.
That has partly come from a complete understanding of the game. Those who have worked with Sterling say that, even in his best season at Liverpool in 2013-14, he was a “straight-lines player”. It was why he might have initially plateaued at City under Manuel Pellegrini, who played boxier formations.
Pep Guardiola immediately addressed that. No player is restricted to effective tram-lines in his formations, and especially not fluid forwards of such potential. There is constant rotation, constant movement.
One of the core tenets of Guardiola’s entire approach is getting players to mentally register the idea of a pitch being divided into 18 different areas, and where to move within them in relation to the ball, their own teammates and the opposition.
It can take a lot to get your head around, which was why the Catalan’s first season at City was so underwhelming. Once it sinks in, though, the effects are… well, what we’ve seen for the last two years. And what we’re seeing now with Sterling.
He gets it. But he doesn’t just get the idea. It has all given him a deeper idea of how the game works. It is like he is now seeing it in 4-D. It has given him a complete understanding of positioning, of how to use space. The same source likens some of it to how the Germans coach, and Thomas Muller’s instinctive understanding of how to make the type of run that instantly takes four players out of the game. That was the Bayern Munich forward’s best quality. It is one of many Sterling qualities.
Because, in that, Guardiola is just like any other teacher. If an exceptionally gifted one.
He has just helped Sterling bring out what he already has.
“His awareness of where defenders were,” Southgate enthused. “His ability to ride challenges, his vision and desire to get in on goal… I couldn’t speak highly enough of the way he played.”
This is why Sterling has started to score so much, and started to be so devastating in open play.
It is those technical qualities tied together and enhanced by his greater understanding.
It is what is completing him as a player, what is bringing it all together.
This is precisely why this stage of a player’s career becomes his prime, because it sees that optimum combination of youthful athleticism with psychological maturity. Few will be capable of a prime like Sterling’s though.
“Raheem’s two performances have been of the highest level,” Southgate added, just as effusively.
And it feels he can still go higher. He looks that unstoppable right now.