Kevin De Bruyne’s gesture during the closing stages of Manchester City’s Premier League game against Brighton and Hove Albion was one of selflessness towards a team-mate and friend, but also one that backfired.
De Bruyne ceded his penalty-taking duties after drawing a foul from Albion goalkeeper Robert Sanchez in stoppage time at a sodden Etihad Stadium, giving Raheem Sterling the chance to step up.
Unfortunately, the England international ballooned his attempt into the deserted North Stand, leaving Pep Guardiola’s side with a few more needlessly nervy minutes to see out a 1-0 win.
A key contributor as City racked up six major trophies in the three previous campaigns under Guardiola, Sterling is yet to fully hit his stride this time around, even as his colleagues in sky blue have moved their collective level through the gears over recent weeks to sit menacingly poised in the Premier League title race.
The Brighton miss means he has scored only three goals in his past 18 appearances in all competitions, a run of four in three either side of the October international break proving to be something of a false dawn.
“He’s an incredibly important player for us,” Guardiola said of Sterling ahead of Sunday’s meeting with Crystal Palace, which will come as the immediate dust settles on the top-two clash between Manchester United and Liverpool at Anfield.
“Everything we have done in the past, without him would not have been possible.”
True as that might be, Sterling relocating his past form would certainly benefit City in an unpredictable season of ample possibilities.
In 2019-20, Sterling enjoyed the most prolific season of his career, scoring 20 goals in the Premier League and 31 overall.
His Premier League haul outperformed an xG of 17.3, coming from 97 shots, although he was even more clinical in those terms the last time City won the Premier League in 2018-19.
In that year of a domestic treble, within 25 in all competitions, Sterling’s 17 top-flight goals from 77 attempts had an xG value of 13.7.
This season, he has four Premier League goals and an xG of 3.6. His 29 shots include five unsuccessful efforts from inside the six-yard box.
Close-range misses have become an unwelcome feature in Sterling’s game, most gallingly when he blazed over with the goal at his mercy during City’s chastening Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon in August.
Before last season, the 26-year-old had never dipped below a 50 per cent conversion rate on what Opta rank as “big chances”. He was most efficient in this regard when he scored 18 of 31 (58 per cent) in 2018-19.
That percentage dropped to 39.6 in 2019-20, as he scored 23 big chances and spurned 35. This term, five scored and 13 missed means a further drop to 27.8 per cent within this smaller sample size.
Sterling’s overall shot conversion of 14.3 per cent is its lowest since 11.7 per cent in Guardiola’s first trophy-less season at City in 2016-17.
So, in a talent stacked squad, should he be fearing for his place? In short, no.
“He will score goals, he will make assists and he wants to help in all departments,” Guardiola insisted.
“Normally wingers are not able do that but he can help us. I’m more than happy to have him here with us.”
A player holding himself to the high standards Sterling does is unlikely to take any comfort in the old head-tousling adage of “he was there to miss ’em”, but there is something to be said for his relentless desire to contribute to the cause, irrespective of where his individual form resides.
Guardiola certainly views him as indispensable. Sterling has played 24 games and completed 1,864 minutes this season, second only to Premier League ever-present Rodri in the City squad.
He has had more shots on target (27) and attempted (88) and completed (41) more dribbles than any other City player. In terms of overall shots (38) and assists (six) he is only bettered by Kevin De Bruyne.
Sterling has created 30 chances for others and, despite his struggles in front of goal, remains joint-second in the squad’s goalscoring charts on seven alongside Ferran Torres, one shy of midweek matchwinner Phil Foden.
The former Liverpool youngster’s previous goal, when he scored decisively at Southampton in December, made him the first player to reach 150 goal involvements for Guardiola’s City.
And, although the Brighton game ended in personal disappointment, his introduction from the bench was his 220th appearance under Guardiola. No player has been selected more frequently by the Catalan tactician in his celebrated career, with a certain Lionel Messi second on that list.
It is that overall big picture of absolute trust and an unquenchable thirst to contribute to the wider cause that means Sterling will remain one of Guardiola’s most trusted performers, even if his dry spell goes on a little longer.