THE VALUE OF STERLING?By Howard Hockin | 13th July 2022
He’s one of our greatest goal scorers, though on occasion he couldn’t score in a brothel. He’s one of City’s best players of the past decade, even though he can barely control a football. He’s a club legend, but has never really made an effort to integrate into the club. Scores some great goals, and just as likely to miss an open net. 131 goals, but most of them were tap-ins. What a huge loss to City, and good riddance. So much intelligence off the ball, not enough intelligence on the ball.
Never has there been a player as divisive as Raheem Sterling. Whatever your thoughts on one of City’s most productive players of the modern era, nuance was often left behind when discussing what he brought to City. The only definite is the numbers. Seven years, 339 appearances, 131 goals, and the harshest of red cards on a crazy day in Bournemouth. You’d normally expect clarity with such numbers. With Raheem Sterling, what to expect was harder to define.
Whatever the truth, the end of his City career hurts. I really wanted him to stay, but it is not to be, and much of what I feel goes beyond kicking a football. Seven years is a long time, and it is rare to lose a key player mid-career in recent times. The hurt of losing the likes of Sergio Aguero and David Silva was based on sentiment, and the memory of what they achieved. With Raheem, there is the additional concern that he still has so much to give.
But how much did he give us? What was the value of Raheem Sterling to Manchester City? What is the meaning of life? If there is one big plus to his exit, there is now the consolation that the tiresome debates over his worth can now end. The baton has been passed to Chelsea fans. Good luck, you’ll need it.
What is obvious, or should be, is that the plusses outweighed the minuses the vast majority of the time. Pep wouldn’t have played him so often otherwise. He wouldn’t have scored 131 goals otherwise. He wouldn’t have 77 England caps otherwise. And there wouldn’t have been a contract on the table for at least a year otherwise. Under players Pep has managed, he is second only to Lionel Messi, whoever he is, in goal involvements.
Black Or White
Perhaps he is the perfect example of the lack of nuance in football discourse, in a world where Pep Guardiola is both the greatest manager of his generation, and also a fraud. After all, Sterling certainly brought out the emotions. One minute you’re punching your seat in frustration, the next minute punching the air in delight. A wonderful footballer, possessing pace, trickery and intelligence in abundance – plus some obvious flaws. He arrived as a young man, and evolved as a person and as a player. A mix of everything, but a mix that saw a clear net gain, especially over a two-year period when he exploded, less so towards the end. The dichotomy of Raheem Sterling. Mentally strong, a player who always put himself in the firing line, and came back stronger, though ideally he would have had nothing to come back from. He was also a player who never scored in Derbies, and came of age against Liverpool in empty stadiums. No disgrace in that, after the treatment he received – and without VAR and fine lines, there would be a different story to tell.
We remember the negatives though, as fans. They stand out. Sterling’s misses are a godsend for meme creators. His flaws are so visual, and if he wasn’t flawed he’d be almost priceless. Raheem Sterling missing from yards out stays in your memory more than Bernardo Silva being anonymous in games for a month or two, which for the record, was very much a thing. Timing is everything. Missing an open goal away to Burnley in a season in which City win the league can soon be forgotten. That miss against Lyon will not be, though there was no guarantee City would have gone on to win the game. Considering the way some football fans’ brains work when they evaluate the worth of players, Raheem Sterling would have been better served being anonymous in the games where he failed in front of goal. Better to do nothing than get involved and stutter, and come away with your reputation more intact. To a lesser extent, I see a similar pattern with the perception of Aymeric Laporte, City’s best centre-half last season, because he was once prone to the odd mistake.
But boy could Raheem Sterling frustrate you. One-on-ones were hardly his forte, as we know all too well. Like many top players who still heavily rely on one foot, he had a tendency to cut back when in a great position to shoot. There is a flip-side too. The options were not always there, especially in a team with no striker. His flaws received far more attention than those of his teammates, and it’s not just about the misses. Bernardo Silva, my go-to-guy for whataboutery, missed an open goal against PSG, but then look at the rest of his play. If he’s not sad, you know what you are going to get with him and others most of the time. Raheem Sterling, less so, and ultimately, he misses more glaring chances and does things that make you sigh more often than any other City player. But then he does more of everything compared to City’s attacking players. Like any player, Sterling could be anonymous in a game, but such occurrences were outliers. Things happened when Sterling played. Mostly, but not always, good. Consider a player who creates six good chances during a match, scoring two of them, forcing a save with two of his other shots, before blazing two chances over the bar from three yards. Then imagine another player who only fashions two chances in 90 minutes, but is a killer in front of goal, and stands a great chance of scoring each chance. Who had the better game? Who is the more valuable player?
Answers on a postcard. Personally, I value the former as much as the latter, but I am now ready for more of the latter. All part of the refresh, and the next stage in the evolution of this side.
Another problem for Sterling was playing in a position that lends itself to fan frustration. City’s wide players spend hours driving towards penalty areas packed with opposition players. It can be a tough role to carry out, especially so for a player that does not have the vision of Kevin De Bruyne, the ability to slow down time and see passes even the fans in the stand haven’t noticed. He is good and no more at decision-making. He will never have that almost embryonic relationship with a football that many he plays with possess. He has to work hard to take control.
Leaving sentiment aside, the main concern for me is how this affects the team, and the prospect of not replacing him. The brutal truth is the short-term consequences of his loss are marginal. To evaluate what City are losing, there is little point reminiscing about 2018 or 2019. We need to evaluate what he did in recent times to ascertain what the team loses. And sadly, his output has declined in the last two seasons, even if it was an output many teams would pay big money for. More to the point, his loss would be felt more if he had made vital contributions, recently, in the crunch games, the really big ones – after all, this is a squad that can easily take the loss of any individual player for most of a season’s games. In those big games, his contribution last season was minimal, often because he wasn’t even on the pitch. Take yourself back at the game against Aston Villa, and at 2-2, who would you rather the ball fell to, six yards out? So as he moves on, so will City. And there will be games crying out for his introduction, but City will be just fine. Just look at the list of departed players from the last few years alone for evidence of that.
But, to repeat myself – so much still to give. Sterling was a star at an early age, but he is only 27 now. He is not on the wane because time has caught up with him, or because a brutal succession of injuries has taken its toll. He can reach the heights of a couple of years ago once more, and may well do. He thinks a fresh start is the best way to make that happen, rather than the opportunity to finally link up with a striker again at City. Ultimately, it was not just that the relationship between Raheem Sterling and Manchester City had run its course, but that the one between the player and manager had. There is a shame in not discovering whether Sterling could prosper with a striker as a focus in the team. After all, as Sergio Aguero’s influence at City waned, so did Raheem Sterling’s goal involvements. There is a regret that, as we saw with his last great contribution, the perfect cross to begin the comeback against Aston Villa, we did not see enough of him on the right side too, where I felt he belonged. I wonder just how much we utilised his pace in this team, considering how the opposition set up, especially as his ball control when running with the ball was not on the same level as most of his attack-minded colleagues. It all adds to my feeling that he was somewhat stunted in the latter stages of his City career. A fresh start is logical with that in mind.
As to whether things will improve at another club is debatable. Selling him to Chelsea is hardly ideal, but it’s more what he gets from it that confuses me. This is not an upward move, if such a move exists, and I never thought his next transfer would be just about money, but his career. He may prefer London, but it is a risk to move to Chelsea, in their current guise. Who knows what you will get with them? Tied down to a five or six-year contract, it is a strange one for me. Playing time may be at the crux of it all, but again, under what formation, and ahead of which players? Another run of poor form, and Tuchel has tough decisions to make.
A Friendly Divorce
Ultimately, his exit may be one of those occasions that is best for all parties. Raheem Sterling’s transfer is a loss to Manchester City, whether he is replaced or not. But all football clubs deal with such losses, and City are better placed than anyone to do so. Raheem Sterling wanted more minutes on the pitch, specifically in the big games, but such assurances could not be made. No manager should promise player minutes, as it would set a dangerous precedent – Raheem Sterling got the minutes he deserved. The fact he felt he should have played more suggests his self-opinion is slightly ahead of reality. I felt that at times, his performances and ability lagged slightly behind his ambition, hence the disquiet at the manager. Ultimately, not starting against Real Madrid or Aston Villa was probably the final nail in the coffin. Pep did not, in recent times, trust him for the big matches. I do not have the inside track, but the willingness to let him go is perhaps telling. And then you consider the contradiction of the contract offered throughout. My guess is that City wanted to keep him, but were not desperate to. There was no extra yard travelled – stay if you want, go if you don’t. If he is not prepared to sign a new contract, then there is little point in him remaining, his value to the team not sufficient to run down a contract. As always the process has played out in the right way, at a club run on a different level to before. There was no falling out, it was all respectful, and this feels like an amicable divorce.
It’s not just about the football. There is a schism in the fanbase over what Sterling meant to them. Away from the pitch, he has been a giant, when he shouldn’t have needed to be. You only have to look at his goodbye message to City to realise the class of the man. The loss felt at his exit is exacerbated because I have felt so protective of him in the past. The abuse he got when daring to leave Liverpool, and his treatment in the media because a young man of colour spent his wages, often on his family. And all this is linked to his perception amongst some City fans, who don’t feel protective. For them, there has been little connection between player and club.
For a very small number of fans, there is a bizarre refusal to acknowledge his merits. Considering Raheem Sterling tap-ins as meaningless, as something any player could do, is the sort of bullshit opinion I would expect from rival fans, not those that watch his every move, every week. Maybe they’re not really watching, maybe they never took to him, maybe some fans only judge by what players do on the ball, not off it. On a separate note, you don’t have to delve too deep into the recesses of the world wide web to find blues who are happy to state they have never taken to him.
Is the lack of a connection between player and club/fans really true, or is he just guarded, cautious and perhaps even shy? It is probable the media created that persona. We can hardly act surprised that he acts this way in front of a camera, or indeed in how he carries himself at all times. For some, that is not enough. Maybe it was that underlying current of knowing he always aspired to move on, to Real Madrid, ideally. Perhaps Erling Haaland harbours similar dreams, and perhaps he won’t receive the same treatment, especially if he scores forty goals a season. On-field achievements can help us quickly forget other stuff.
I have little, if any desire to discuss whether he is a club legend, it being such a hard thing to define. Often it’s nothing more than a vibe, it’s a feeling you get. Some acquire such status with their football. As for that connection, how do you get it? More fist bumps and passion, perhaps. Raheem Sterling seems damned by not being from Yorkshire, and for not smiling enough over the past twelve months. To be honest, I’m not overly bothered about how integration into Mancunian life. I’ll judge him on football. Nevertheless, I had tremendous respect for him as a man. I’d wish him all the best, but he’ll be playing for Chelsea. The same goes for Gabriel Jesus. It’s hard to wish players well when they move to teams you have no affection for. What’s more, the bitterness quota of being a modern football fan secretly hopes they regret their moves and end up pining for the boulevards and cracked flags of East Manchester.
At the end of it all, where does that leave me? With the following thoughts: it’s logical to be sad at the departure of Raheem Sterling, it’s normal to consider him one of most important players for the club during the past decade, whilst acknowledging he had considerable flaws, that at times became problematic. It’s understandable to feel conflicted, about a player that produced brilliant moments and a smaller number of truly terrible ones. It is right to conclude that to assess Raheem Sterling’s worth is not easy, as he is not easy to define, but to accept his form has waned over the past two seasons, which means as a natural consequence so has his contribution and importance. If you accept he is neither perfect nor an average player saved by pace, then you have taken the first step to working him out. I truly wish you all the best Raheem, because you have earned it, especially if your best in the future is to the detriment of Liverpool or Manchester United. You have overcome obstacle after obstacle to get to this stage in your life, and you deserve success. What will always remain is an inability to define you as a football player – but ultimately, is it really that important that we do?
Howard’s new book, Twelfth Man, a fictional account of the very real 2011/12 season, is out now.