“If there was the option to go somewhere else for more game time I would be open to it,” Raheem Sterling remarked in October.
“As an English player all I know is the Premier League and I’ve always thought maybe one day I’d love to play abroad.”
Those words from Sterling was not merely a passing response to questions about his career ambitions. They were a tacit way of informing Pep Guardiola that he was not satisfied with his peripheral role in the Man City project this season.
It is easy to forget, after afternoon’s where Sterling shines such as today, how much of a headache Sterling was giving his manager in the worst kind of way at the start of the campaign.
In the 2-0 home win over Burnley in October – at the end of the week in which Sterling offered those comments – he cut a disconsolate figure. In fact, the Englishman’s display in the first half against Sean Dyche’ men was so disappointing that Guardiola shifted him at the interval. Less involved, City’s performance improved as a result.
However, two months is a long time in football. From villain to hero, Sterling is now a central figure in City’s quest to retain the Premier League title.
He has now netted in four straight league outings for Guardiola’s side, adding his fifth in his last four games by sealing City’s 6-3 win over Leicester from a Ruben Dias knock down. He is a player brimming with confidence in the purest sense, exemplified by his blistering run into the penalty box in the early exchanges which left Marc Albrighton in a daze.
That was the aspect of Sterling’s game which had escaped him in the early parts of the campaign. The goalscoring instinct has never quite been in question. It also helps explain why Man City are reportedly set to sanction the sale of Ferran Torres despite a lack of pure goalscoring options in the meantime.
Guardiola wants his players to be multi-faceted in order to contribute to the overall performance. Before his injury Torres had began to garner a reputation of being the closest Guardiola possessed to a true No.9. Seemingly, the closer a player gets to being an out-and-out goalscorer under the Spaniard the more they become marginalised in his plans.
The problem for Sterling at the start of the campaign was that he was doing neither. His general play was suffering and he went seven games without a goal in the Premier League during the autumn.
Now, however, he looks to have rediscovered his swagger. Guardiola deserves credit for placing his unwavering trust in the England international and the player’s camp will note the haste in which Torres is being shipped out to create even more opportunities for the winger in the interim.
Sterling’s display in the victory over the Foxes is exactly what Guardiola demands. The Englishman knows Guardiola more than most after five-and-a-half seasons under him and, on the evidence of the speedster’s recent form, could be set to outlast him at the Etihad Stadium.