There are a selection of players who have always endured stick at any Premier League ground they rock up at.
While it’s not desirable, it’s understandable in some cases. During his time as a Liverpool player, Luis Suarez was a regular target, as he did little to earn favor among neutrals despite his obvious brilliance.
Joey Barton is another who is showered with invective due to his previous misdemeanors, while other former Premier League stars, think Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United, almost encouraged boos with some brash behavior.
Reasons for Manchester City man Raheem Sterling being the subject of widespread ire are tougher to decipher, though. Against Liverpool, you’d expect the former Reds tyro to get some stick due to his controversial departure, while rival fans of his clubs from Manchester United and Everton may not have forgotten his previous allegiances.
But whenever Sterling picks up possession anywhere in the country, the boos ring out. And when he struggled in his debut term at the Etihad Stadium following a £49 million move from Anfield, plenty were giddy at the inconsistency in his performances and joyous at recalling the sizable amount City splashed on him.
It’s something that seemed to trouble Sterling. After a testing domestic campaign, he was poor at the UEFA European Championships — a petition was even set up to bring the player home — and has since been the target of some bizarre criticism in the press, including stories about shopping in Poundland, buying food in Greggs and driving a dirty car.
Yet despite the scrutiny, a tough first season and the peculiar obsession in him from certain sections of the press, Sterling has quietly excelled under Pep Guardiola.
The acquisition of players like Gabriel Jesus, Nolito and Leroy Sane put pressure on the England international, still only 22, to earn his berth in the XI under the new boss. It’s a challenge he’s relished and as was evident in City’s 2-0 win over Bournemouth on Monday, Sterling is playing his best football since his arrival at the club.
Although Guardiola’s influence hasn’t had a massive benefit on many City players, there’s little doubt he’s been a catalyst for Sterling’s recent improvement.
The most notable upgrade in the winger’s play has been his decision making. On the ball in dangerous positions, there’s been an added composure to Sterling’s choices. So often in 2016-17 he’s been content to take an extra second when one-on-one with a defender or a goalkeeper, much to his benefit.
The manner in which he squared up Adam Smith and beat him on the outside to set up Sergio Aguero’s goal on Monday was testament to that clear thinking; his goal against Celtic in the UEFA Champions League, when he sat down defender and goalkeeper in the penalty area before slotting home, was another.
There are tangible figures to underpin these developments too. In the Premier League this season, Sterling already has six goals and five assists, bettering his total of six and two respectively from last term.
The style of play being utilized by Guardiola suits the City No. 7 down to the ground as well. The triumvirate of Sterling, Sane and Jesus may have been disbanded for now due to the latter’s injury issues, but the perpetual motion of the trio offered a refreshing approach in the final third.
Sterling, a young player that’s always showcased positional adaptability and tactical acumen, has relished not only the fluidity of Guardiola’s setup, but the intensity of it.
Under predecessor Manuel Pellegrini, City’s defensive approach was to sit deep and stifle, whereas Guardiola wants his players on the front foot. Sterling has bought into those methods, winning more tackles—1.8 per game compared to 1.1—and making significantly more interceptions—1.6 per game compared to 0.6—this season than in 2015-16.
It’s been part of an evident maturation. Not only in his play, but off the field too. While his unsanctioned interview with BBC Sport in 2015, detailing his reasons for not signing a new contract at Liverpool, did show signs of petulance, he’s not caused a single stir in his time at the Etihad Stadium.
Indeed, in response to the litany of stories focusing on his actions off the field, Sterling joked on Instagram recently “please don’t make a story that I haven’t had a trim [haircut] in 2 weeks.” He seems at ease with the flack, having previously admitted to seeing a psychiatrist to help block out criticism.
He’s clearly contented with his football and performances like those at the Vitality Stadium will further invalidate discussions about the fee City paid to sign him. At the moment, Sterling is looking like money well spent for the Manchester outfit.
The forward will probably still attract jeers and will never be a favorite among a portion football fans; for someone who remains the brightest English prospect around, that’s a shame. But even those who boo every touch of the ball Sterling has will have a begrudging admiration for the determination and talent being showcased by the City starlet with ominous regularity.
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