Raheem Sterling is actually at the peak of his powers
With the Premier League title long since out of reach, the 2019-20 season may seem to have ended early for Manchester City. Of course, that's a silly thing to say about a side that already has the League Cup in the bag and could still win two big trophies. But it's been an unusual campaign for the Abu-Dhabi-powered version of the club, and no player exemplifies the contrasts more than Raheem Sterling.
This year Sterling is once again at the forefront of social activism among footballers, turning the ill will directed against him by so-called football fans and so-called media outlets into a mandate for positive change. But he's also having his best season – at least in our database – in attack at LW. How can this be, you might ask, given that he only has 13 goals and assists to his name? Well, let's take a look at the numbers.
First of all, why are we saying that it's Sterling's best season at LW? His rating for attacking output is now 92 in the Premier League, the highest it's been in our data, and he's also clocked a 90 in the Champions League. His defending and ball retention aren't too shabby, either. In fact, only Neymar and Sadio Mane have matched these levels of overall stats in recent seasons:
One other thing to note about Sterling is that he's a fine tackler – something that we'll want to remember later. But for now, let's try to see why his attacking rating is so high.
A quick look at Sterling's other statistics shows that the quality of his shots from LW has been almost unchanged versus last season. He's actually been involved in a lower share of the club's expected goals but a higher share of its shots. And his involvement in goals has dropped, too:
This suggests that Sterling has been creating more opportunities for his teammates, but they haven't turned those opportunities into great chances as often as they did in the past. It sounds like he's been getting into good positions, but the results after he lets go of the ball haven't been quite as telling.
To add some validation to this idea, let's compare Sterling's smartermaps for this season and last at LW:
This season Sterling has indeed been getting deeper into the penalty area and getting more touches around the corner of the six-yard box, and those actions would have raised his rating in our ball progression model. He's also been doing less dribbling in and around the box, which is probably a good thing given that he's fairly mediocre at taking on defenders. More often, he's been looking for short passes – and it seems like those passes haven't led to so many goals.
Sterling has also been more active in the left channel, where he's been working hard on both sides of the ball. If we compare his playing style across the past three seasons, the main difference besides the downturn in shooting is that's he's disrupting more plays:
That's no less than what Pep Guardiola expects of his attacking players, but it does mean that Sterling is more likely to start attacking moves from good positions. So Sterling may not be shooting as much, but he's been more essential than ever as an engine for Manchester City's attack. And this leads us to the biggest question – why hasn't he had more assists?
It's not because Manchester City aren't scoring. In the Premier League, they've put the ball in the net at almost as high a rate as last season: 2.4 goals per game compared to 2.5 in 2018-19. In fact, Sergio Aguero and especially Gabriel Jesus have both been shooting at higher rates than last season. It's just that Sterling isn't getting the assists.
One reason is that Jesus has been playing more this season, and he likes to receive the ball from his right, not his left, before shooting. Another reason is the increasingly pivotal role of Kevin de Bruyne. The Belgian international already has 16 assists, as many as he racked up in 37 matches in 2017-18. De Bruyne usually drifts to the right side, too, so the locus of the club's attack has gradually shifted away from Sterling's area of influence. By contrast, Riyad Mahrez already has as many assists as he did when Leicester City won the title, in less than half as many minutes.
The bottom line is that when Sterling gets the ball, he's more dangerous than ever. But he's not getting the ball quite as much, and when he does, it's often up to others to put the finishing touches on the move. Will Guardiola change his tactics again to make sure he gets the most out of his star at LW?
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[Photo: Антон Зайцев]