Raheem Sterling had the best season of his career in 2018/19, and by the looks of things he’s improving. Pep Guardiola thinks it’s because he’s using previous failures to inspire him…
Imagine you’re a defender playing against Raheem Sterling.
If you do this you’re probably playing in the Premier League or the Champions League, so already you’re in the top one per cent of people who do your job. You’ve probably trained for most of your life to nail down the basics of defending, and you’ve almost certainly got a pretty good handle on the advanced stuff too.
You know how closely you should mark someone, you have a decent idea about the sort of runs most forwards make. You know you have to be careful not to lunge into tackles, but you also know you can’t leave things too late or else you’re in some mither.
The problem is, you can do all of this, you can think of absolutely every conceivable scenario, you can do absolutely everything right. But then you play Raheem Sterling and he makes a fool of you anyway.
He's a nightmare to play against...he's playing in a great team but he's arguably their key player.
West Ham’s defenders didn’t do everything right on Saturday, so it can only really be expected that Sterling scored a hat-trick. The finishing was merciless, the runs perfectly-timed, the awareness of everything around him absolute. “He’s a nightmare to play against,” said Jack Wilshere after the game. “You don’t know if he’s going to come inside and he’s so sharp off the mark. He’s playing in a great team but he’s arguably their key player.”
Sterling was good for a long time, has been sensational for a couple of years and now looks even better.
All of which presents the frankly terrifying prospect that Sterling, scorer of 48 goals over the last couple of seasons and 2018/19 player of the year, is still improving. And the reason for that could be down to a sort of mental strength he displayed against West Ham.
The notable thing about his latest treble was that they were all one-on-ones, and all chances for which he had time to think, but he buried them anyway. A feature of Sterling’s game in the years when his clear promise and talent didn’t quite match up with his end product was that he could dither in situations like this, like his brain was suddenly filled with all the things he could do, inadvertently befuddling himself with option blindness and causing him to make a mess of his chances.
That hasn’t entirely gone away. He did that a fair bit during the World Cup, and there was even an example of it in the Community Shield against Liverpool, in which he fluffed a chance having been set free against Alisson. What’s interesting about that chance is that, according to Pep Guardiola at least, Sterling is now using minor failures like that as positive inspiration, rather than seeds of doubt.
“He missed against Liverpool, but he learned from that,” Guardiola said after the West Ham game. “These guys aged 23, 24, they can still learn. I’m pretty sure he thought about that [while he was clean through against West Ham], and thought ‘I’m going to be more clinical, more aggressive.’ And that’s why he scored a hat-trick.”
It’s quite a trick to call up a relatively recent failure in and rather than it filling your brain with thoughts of failure, be clear-minded enough to analyse what you did wrong before and do the opposite.
Sterling has always been at his best when his thoughts are clear and clinical, because his brain appears to work slightly differently to everyone else. He sees things others don’t, angles that wouldn’t occur to most. The goal he scored for Liverpool against City in 2014 is a case in point, as is another versus Celtic in 2016. The problem was that he didn’t do that enough.
But making that clarity more consistent is something that will inevitably improve over time, as he finesses the relationship between his brain and feet, making sure one can do what the other tells it, quicker, and with more certainty.
As that improves, so will Sterling. He’s getting better. Think on that, defenders.
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