Sterling's improvement owes much to a new-look Man City
Ahead of Raheem Sterling's return to his former club, Liverpool, there will be plenty of debate over the difference between Liverpool-era Sterling and City-era Sterling, along with questions about precisely how he's improved so much. But that's a slightly false debate -- or, at least, it's not the most interesting debate.
The key is precisely what has changed between last season and this. After all, Sterling was playing under Pep Guardiola last season, yet his performances were entirely unremarkable -- better than in his first Manchester City campaign under Manuel Pellegrini but considerably worse than his previous best season, in Liverpool's nearly title-winning campaign of 2013-14.
The answer is relatively simple: Sterling's role at City has changed subtly, but significantly.
When Guardiola arrived in English football, he was determined to create a side reminiscent of Louis van Gaal's mid-1990s Ajax side: two wingers who remained near the touchlines, stretching the play whenever possible and charging down the outside of the opposition full-backs. This created gaps between defenders, perfect for the forward runs of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, playmakers who were redeployed in central midfield roles.
That system was partly a consequence of City's limited full-back options. Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna, Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy were all the wrong side of 30, no longer possessing the stamina to motor up and down the touchlines relentlessly for 90 minutes; the only true "overlapper" in the group, Kolarov, was generally used at centre-back anyway. The full-backs sometimes drifted inside to become central midfielders, which meant the width came from the wingers and therefore, Sterling was largely positioned out wide. It all makes sense, but these days, key contributions rarely come from those zones.
This season, City have used a different approach -- more similar to the way Guardiola played with Barcelona -- and the width is provided from deeper.
At the start of the campaign, Guardiola surprisingly used a 3-5-2 formation (which actually excluded Sterling from the starting XI on the opening day) but Sterling netted crucial late goals against Everton and Bournemouth. The 3-5-2 was unquestionably bad for Sterling, who no longer had a natural position in the side, but it also demonstrated that Guardiola had speedy full-backs (newcomers Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy) who could be redeployed as wing-backs. Therefore, when Guardiola returned to a system featuring wingers, they'd be able to drift inside more often.
Sterling's goals against Everton and Bournemouth were both struck from a central position and on both occasions, the ball was played into the box from wide-right positions by Danilo, deputising for Walker. That foreshadowed the nature of his strikes over the next few weeks: they were all essentially "poacher's goals." The Everton strike came after a cross was half-cleared, while the Bournemouth winner was a very fortunate deflected, close-range effort.
His third goal of the season, against Watford, was a late penalty in a 6-0 win. His next four -- two against Palace, one against Stoke and another at West Brom -- were all struck from point-blank range and three of them were open goals that, as the pundits might suggest, their grandparents could have scored. Their grandparents, however, probably wouldn't have got themselves into the right positions, which is key to Sterling's goal tally.
Sterling's next strike, a late winner at Huddersfield and his eighth of the Premier League campaign, was another open goal ... and barely even a shot. Gabriel Jesus' effort was saved with the rebound bouncing off Sterling and looping in. Sheer luck, perhaps, but this was Sterling's most telling goal as 10 seconds before the ball pinged into the net, right-back Walker found himself receiving possession in a narrow position, almost in central midfield. This was the Manchester City of last season: full-back narrow, winger wide.
But what happened next reversed the situation. Walker played the ball wide to Sterling and immediately made a very deliberate overlapping run around him. This allowed Sterling inside; he attempted a one-two with De Bruyne but the return ball didn't quite come. It fell first to Jesus, then to Sterling and then into the net.
As Sterling naturally wheeled away in celebration toward the left flank, the direction he was running in anyway, he suddenly performed a U-turn and darted toward Walker, who was still located on the right flank. It might have been coincidence, perhaps, but Walker's positioning was the reason for Sterling's goal -- and the reason for his huge improvement.
With the arguable exception of his Everton strike on the opening weekend, none of Sterling's finishes until this point was remotely difficult, which is somewhat typical of a player who had previously appeared strangely incapable in front of goal. In truth, his shots-to-goals statistics were never disastrous but he sometimes lacked the ability to generate sufficient power. He wasn't slamming shots against the post but scuffing them into defenders, a level of incompetence that the statistics arguably overlook.
But Sterling has always appeared something of a confidence player and getting these "easy" goals, thus improving his scoring tally, has seemingly made him more refined when attempting difficult shots. His curled winner against Southampton, for example, was an entirely different goal that owed more to execution than position.
Two goals against Spurs were more simple, but then his strikes against Bournemouth (from a wider position than the majority of goals) and against Newcastle, a volley from a straight pass squeezed in from an acute angle, were both genuinely fine finishes. Technical concerns no longer seem a problem.
This appears an improvement in three very different respects: tactical, psychological and technical. It appears to have occurred in that order, too, with his improved technique seemingly following from improved confidence, which owes much to simple goals from a different tactical role.
Sterling's improvement isn't about how Guardiola has changed him from his Liverpool days but about how Guardiola has changed City from last season.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.