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How Guardiola turned Sterling into a world-beating fox in the box?

  /  autty

A YouTube video by Liverpool fans after Raheem Sterling’s move to Manchester City four years ago encapsulates the difference between the player then and now.

The song ‘So Long, Farewell’ plays over a compilation of Sterling sitters. A few reveal over-elaboration on his part but they are mostly a failure of the young No 31 to put his foot through a ball with the goal yawning. Part of the video’s title is #goodriddance.

The goals that Sterling did score at Liverpool are edited out of this rather bitter production. The Newcastle game, in April 2015, three months before the player signed for City, illustrates why manager Brendan Rodgers was willing to tolerate the occasional howler. The 20-year-old Sterling was sublime, instantly controlling Jordan Henderson’s diagonal pass and dancing around Ryan Taylor before delicately picking his spot past Tim Krul.

But run the numbers on Sterling’s career and you see the difference City have made.

From nine Premier League goals in 2013-14 — his best return in three Liverpool seasons — he has scored 17 and 18 in the past two seasons with 14 already this time.

It will hurt Liverpool that he has evolved in this way because there always was a fear that City would pinch him and benefit from their shrewd scouting. When the 15-year-old Sterling briefly vanished from Liverpool’s Kirkby academy on the day he was to sign from Queens Park Rangers in 2010, a few were convinced that Etihad staff had spirited him away.

Guardiola arrived at City and took over Sterling in the aftermath of England’s disastrous Euro 2016.

There was a telephone call between the two and Guardiola identified a psychological dimension to Sterling’s first-season struggle at City.

‘Obviously, he has a little bit of problem with the £49million they (Manchester City) paid, in the mind of the people,’ Guardiola said at the time. Another insider put it more strongly. ‘Raz was fading away.’

Those who knew Sterling from his Liverpool days (below) relate that he was more introspective than his confident exterior implied. When Mikel Arteta joined Guardiola and was asked to work with Sterling he felt the player was intimidated by the goal and subconsciously operated farther away from it than he might.

He seemed indifferent to how many goals he scored. ‘It was like he didn’t care,’ Guardiola said.

He and Arteta asked Sterling to operate closer to the penalty area, constantly creating a goal threat, becoming a six-yard-box predator as well as a ball carrier, potentially scoring every game even if that meant missing two or three chances. ‘Having more belief and getting into the right position to score,’ as one source puts it.

This had never formed part of the conversation at Liverpool.

Initially, City wanted him on the right. They felt he could be far more effective in the moment the ball reached him. Sterling has described how Guardiola told him to stop receiving the ball with his outstep, which he had thought in his formative years was ‘nice’ on the eye. But the changes were more substantial than that.

Guardiola and Arteta felt he was static when he received the ball, which could get stuck under his feet. ‘When the ball reached him he really had his gaze fixed on it rather than a half-touch instinctive control and the vision of what’s around him,’ Arteta tells the authors of a new book on Guardiola’s City, The Making of a Superteam.

Guardiola’s vision for Sterling was a role similar to that of Romario, his old Barcelona team-mate. ‘Whenever I saw Romario with his back to the centre-halves I’d never give him the ball,’ he tells the writers. ‘But the instant I saw him on the ‘half-turn’ with his shoulder dipping as if he wanted the ball fed into his right or left foot, I knew he thought he could explode away from his marker. In that instance I always hit the pass immediately. Every time.

‘I’d learned that his vision meant he’d had one eye on the distance between him and the opposition goal and the other eye on where the ball was. If he opened up his body shape like that and I fed him the ball, the defender was automatically done for.’

The key to this strategy was Sterling’s acceleration. It meant he could get behind defences as well as finish. His acceleration is a quality that for Guardiola creates echoes of Lionel Messi.

The player was asked to drop slightly farther away from his marker when receiving the ball, with his body on that ‘half-turn’ so that he could sprint into the danger area. And when he was arriving to meet a scoring opportunity in the six-yard box, there was also a new instruction. ‘Attack the ball. Don’t just put your foot in.’

At Liverpool, you felt by the end that the player was in charge of his relationship with Rodgers. It was a desperately rancorous time.

At City, Guardiola is very much in charge of the relationship and still has the player operating on the edge, as one of the most revealing scenes from Amazon’s Manchester City series, All or Nothing laid bare.

Sterling has just missed a sitter at Burnley and subsequently been substituted in a 1-1 draw. For most managers, that would have been punishment enough and Sterling is desolate as Guardiola addresses the team after the match.

But Guardiola is ice-cold in a subsequent conversation with the player. Sterling tells Guardiola: ‘I didn’t do what Mikel (Arteta) said. I didn’t attack the ball. We (didn’t win) because of my fault.’

Guardiola still admonishes him. ‘Just so you know, I substituted you because of that. You can’t make a mistake like that. I don’t expect you to make a mistake like that.’

Another insider says Sterling’s development has much to do with City director of football Txiki Begiristain and Guardiola building a team to play to his strengths.

‘What’s not appreciated is how specific they are about what they want from a new player and how they’ll get other players operating to bring that out,’ he says.

Nothing seems to stand still. Initially insistent that he operate on the right, Guardiola and Arteta this season have him attacking from the left to finish with his stronger right foot.

It sounded like cheap press conference talk when Guardiola said after Sterling’s goal had seen off Dinamo Zagreb at the Etihad last month that ‘in a few years he’ll be a better player than today’. But another of the documentary’s telling asides reveals the manager isn’t finished. ‘He doesn’t have to think (when he receives the ball now),’ Guardiola says of Sterling, at the end of another discussion with Arteta. ‘Except when he’s using his left foot.

‘Then he does.’