There is no question that Pep Guardiola has brought out the world-class player in Raheem Sterling as the English winger has gone from strength to strength. He has become an integral part of Manchester City, contributing 25 goals and 18 assists in all competitions last season as well as winning the PFA Young Player of the Year. Sterling raced to 18 goals for club and country by early November, outscoring everyone else in Europe, while also adding nine assists, in 19 games across all competitions. However since then, Sterling has failed to score or provide an assist in his previous five league games and only has six goals in all competitions since December.
This tactical analysis/scout report will break down Sterling’s dip and form and see why it has happened and if it is a concern for Manchester City and for England. The analysis will also explore Sterling’s tactical role for the Premier League giants and look at how the Englishman’s key strengths have been used to devastating effect, but also why his weakness has potentially caused this recent dip in form.
Sterling’s position in transitions
For City to break forward, Sterling has different roles as a left-winger to transition the team forward. In the first phase of City ‘s build-up, Sterling will drop deep. This will typically happen when a team adopts a high press and since City insist on playing out from the back, it requires forward players to drop into positions to move the ball on quickly to keep the move flowing. As a result, Sterling will only drop back briefly to be an option to bounce the ball off of.
The example below highlights how in the early stages of the game Sheffield United have adopted a high press, committing players forward. For City to play their way out of the press, it requires Sterling to come inside from a wide position. This is vital for City as Sterling’s pace to quickly drop into space means he is is a passing option for Rodri and as a result, Sterling can move the ball onto Nicolás Otamendi who can then move into the other side of the pitch.
The winger’s movement from the wing to inside is an essential part of City’s pass and move style of play, enabling them to swiftly transition forward. This illustrates Sterling’s ability to quickly read the situation and therefore be aware he needs to find a pocket of space for City to maintain possession. He is effective at this as well as he completes 93.9% of his passes in his own half.
Next transition phase
As Sterling is predominantly a left-winger for Manchester City, his starting position is out wide, however this is only when City have the ball in the middle of the pitch. This is because at this stage of the attack the full-backs are not able to push forward. As a result, Sterling needs to be the passing option out wide. This is important to City as Pep likes his players to always have at least one passing option. Therefore, with Sterling maintaining the width it stretches their opponents, leaving more space in other areas of the pitch for City to move the ball into.
In order for City to move forward, effectively they will have players in pockets of space around Sterling to support him when he is under pressure from a defender and to create a two vs one situation. The example against Manchester United below demonstrates that perfectly.
When Sterling picks the ball up in a wide position, he triggers the press from Aaron Wan-Bissaka, at the same time İlkay Gündoğan drops into the pocket to provide a passing option. With Sterling’s quick acceleration, if he played the ball into Gündoğan they would have been able to play it around Wan-Bissaka. However, as the right-back is not tight to Sterling this is not necessarily the best option as Wan-Bissaka would have time to recover. On this particular occasion, Sterling opts for the pass back for City to rotate the play.
Position in the final third
So far this tactical analysis has looked at how Sterling’s position adapts to help City transition to the final third. However, in the areas mentioned his role has been primarily to be a quick passing option for Manchester City to play the ball off of to get up the pitch. This is because in these areas Sterling is not in a position to be a threat as he does not have the vision to find a dangerous pass forward and is, therefore, better to pass the ball to a midfielder who may be able to find a key pass like Kevin De Bruyne or David Silva can do. As a result, it is more beneficial for Sterling to play the simple pass and then move forward into areas where he can utilise his strengths.
As shown in the example below when City have the ball in the final third, the full-back will push forward into the left-wing position and this means that City still have a passing option out wide while maintaining the width for their attack. This then enables Sterling to move inside to the edge of the area where he can cause problems for his opponents. In this particular example, it is Oleksandr Zinchenko that has advanced forward, giving Sterling the licence to move inside.
As he is in a more central position it means he is closer to David Silva, who like Sterling, will operate in between the defensive lines. Because the two players are close to each other it means that a pass into Sterling from Fernandinho enables him to play a one-two to target the space in behind Aston Villa. On this occasion, the defender fouls him and they may not have been able to complete the one-two but with Sterling in this position, he is able to cause a problem and win a freekick.
There is no doubt in Sterling’s pace. What is particularly dangerous about his speed is how quickly he can accelerate. This is a key asset for the winger and it is is a large reason why he has been able to add a considerable number of goals to his game. With his burst of acceleration, he is able to get to the ball first in front of a defender and as he is making these runs in and around the box it often results in a goal.
Part of the reason the runs Sterling makes are so effective is that his central position enables him to get into an area in the box where he has a simple finish. The first image below shows how Sterling uses his acceleration to devastating effect – as Riyad Mahrez picks up the ball on the right-hand side Sterling can see the space in behind West Ham’s backline and therefore starts his run, and as he does so, Mahrez’s cross finds him. Because of the speed of the move, it does not give the defenders time to adjust and Sterling’s speed enables him to have time to pick his spot and score despite the keeper rushing out.
Pep’s tactics of getting Sterling into central areas around the edge of the box is an effective way of utilising his acceleration. It can be particularly successful when City opt for the early cross as Sterling’s goal against Atlanta shows. Unlike the straight run Sterling made for the goal described above, he is also able to change it to make the run more effective as his acceleration in this situation enables him to run diagonally in behind. It may not be as quick but it is effective as he can get in front of the defender. That combined with the curved cross into the space Sterling is targeting makes it a difficult combination to defend.
This tactical analysis has looked at how Sterling’s role transitions across the pitch and as a result, he only attempts to dribble with the ball in the final third as it is where he can be most effective. Sterling’s dribbling is one of his major assets as his close control draws defenders in to make a challenge and as they do, he skips past them. His one vs one success is 69.9%, illustrating how good he can be.
This is particularly impressive considering the area he is dribbling in. The reason he can get past his opponent and is good in tight spaces is his dribbling technique. Sterling will favour his right foot and will push the ball forward with small touches but will not often try a skill move. Instead he will drop a shoulder or wait for his opponent to commit to a tackle since his quick feet will enable him to go past him. This is also helped by his small centre of gravity. It’s effective as he is able to do this while running at pace, therefore keeping the ball close makes it harder for a defender to make a tackle, especially in the penalty area.
Under Pep, Sterling has massively improved his end product and he’s been able to add a considerable number of goals and assists to his name. As mentioned earlier, the winger already has 20 goals in all competitions this season so it is hardly a poor season for him. However, his finishing at times is still questionable. Part of the reason he has been able to increase his number of goals is his positioning. The analysis has already mentioned the areas both City and Sterling target. This is a credit to Sterling as he still needs to get into these areas to score.
Nevertheless, Sterling’s finishing is something he can definitely work on, especially with his left foot as the winger has scored only four of his 20 this season with his left foot. This is partly due to the area he is shooting from. The diagram below illustrates where Sterling likes to shoot from and the areas he aims for. Interestingly, 41.5% of his shots are in the centre of the goal, therefore an area a goalkeeper is more likely to save. Sterling will also opt for the curling shot with his right foot, favouring accuracy over power.
As this analysis has mentioned and it is clear to see, Sterling’s ability on the ball can be untouchable. However, his form may have dipped because he is predictable. As mentioned, Sterling heavily favours his right foot and will try to work himself into a position to shoot with it. This, however, requires him to cut inside.
Nevertheless, as teams are aware Sterling wants to cut inside they will then set up a block with one or two defenders and open up their body to encourage Sterling to go down the line. This is what Sheffield United have done in the example below. Notice how they have one player tight to Sterling with his body pointing down the line forcing him to go that way. Sterling is able to get past the defender, forcing him down the line but as he then has nowhere to go, the defender in the middle clears the ball. This illustrates that even though Sterling is still able to get past the defender, teams are prepared for this and as a result, limit his threat.
One area Sterling does need to work on is his crossing as only 29.4% of his crosses are accurate and 1.8% lead to an assist. He will also mix it up with a high or low cross but both have an equally poor accuracy. This indicates that it is an area of weakness for the winger and is, therefore, something teams can target. As this analysis has mentioned, Sterling heavily favours his right foot so when teams force him down the line it prevents him from crossing with his right foot, again reducing the threat of the cross.
Like Sheffield United have in the example below, doubling up on Sterling means he can only go down the line. This particular example also demonstrates the winger’s reluctance to cross with his left foot as he tries to go around the two players rather than looking for a player in the box. This again results in Sterling losing the ball. Notice the area he crosses from as despite the fact City like to go for the early cross, Sterling is crossing from deeper positions.
This tactical analysis has looked at Raheem Sterling’s season so far and broken down his key attributes. The winger may be on a poor run of form but I fully expect him to be back to his best when football resumes. Sterling may be predictable at times but his positioning and Manchester City’s attacking nature will mean that he will continue to get chances and will soon be back scoring. The Citizens’ plethora of attacking talent also helps Sterling as even if teams target him tactically, it will then open up space in other areas of the pitch for other players.