Manchester City have earned four points from their first two games with a 2-0 away win at Brighton and Hove Albion and a 1-1 draw at home to Everton. While there are no major complaints this early in the season it is not quite the flying start by City that many were expecting.
With a number of very talented new players on the roster it is Raheem Sterling, now in his third year at the club, who has featured most prominently in the discussions around the start of the club’s campaign.
He scored the goal that rescued Pep Guardiola’s team from embarrassment at the hands of Everton and he was also brought on in the first game at Brighton, along with Sane and Bernardo Silva, when Guardiola’s 3-5-2 formation, featuring wing-backs and no wingers, was struggling to pick apart Brighton’s packed defence.
Both of City’s games have shown that despite the obvious talent, pace and usefulness of City’s full-backs in their current formation, the team still needs that extra dynamism and the dribbling ability possessed by Sterling, Sane and Bernardo to break teams down.
Of these three players during pre-season, and since the start of the regular season, it is Sterling who has demonstrated the most that his current form can be an asset to Guardiola, especially if City stick to their current formation.
After the game against Brighton, Guardiola stated that he did have some doubts about leaving Sterling out of his starting eleven. The Manchester Evening News quoted the Spaniard as saying: “The only doubt I had was Raz (Sterling), because Raz played amazing in pre-season through the middle.”
It is perhaps the last part of that quote that is the most telling of how Sterling could be utilised for maximum effect by the Spanish coach. Sterling has been playing mostly on the flanks during his time at Manchester City.
However, he has demonstrated his efficiency in the middle behind strikers, not just recently in City’s pre-season, but in the past for Liverpool and England. He can play from the right, in the middle and across to the left with deadly effect.
Over the past two weeks Manchester City’s forward pairing of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus has not proven to be the formidable attacking partnership many thought it would be.
One solution to this situation would be to take out one of the forwards and slot in Sterling behind a solitary striker, free to act as a number 10 marauding through the middle, left and right.
To have a clearer idea of how this role for the Jamaican-born midfielder could elevate City’s attacking game we need to go back a few years to when Sterling was utilized in a somewhat similar way very successfully by former Liverpool head coach Brendan Rodgers and ex-England manager Roy Hodgson.
In 2014, when Raheem Sterling played in his first World Cup tournament, his performance in a number 10 role against Italy garnered much praise from pundits and fans.
It was the pace for which he has become well-known and his dribbling ability that made him such a handful to deal with in central positions. He put in a memorable performance against the Italians, playing a key role in the build-up to a Daniel Sturridge goal in that game.
However, it was at Liverpool where he was given this very important responsibility, at a time when the talented player was still only a teenager. Brendan Rodgers alternated between using him as a winger and in central areas, where he sometimes functioned as a second striker or as a number 10.
The reasons for playing him, much like a trequartista, in this way are the same attributes that seem him often played as a winger. His remarkable dribbling pulls defenders and opens up spaces for other attackers. He is able to efficiently find spaces to run into and he is good at finding nearby attackers with his passing.
His pace, which is highly effective on the wing, is just as impactful in the middle. Guardiola’s teams often use fast players on the flanks to quickly cover distances in attack, but Sterling can do this with his runs through the middle, offering another speedy bridge from the midfield to forward areas.
This adds another dimension to the game and is another way of breaking down defences. At the moment, Yaya Toure is the player who on the odd occasion does this, making lumbering runs with the ball from the middle of the pitch into the final third.
With new and talented wing-backs now available to Guardiola, it makes sense to move Sterling into central areas when playing three at the back to create this additional option for penetration.
The pace on the flanks, combined with Sterling’s speed in the middle is exactly what City needs to speed up its overall attacking play, which is sometimes judged as too slow to unlock defences.
David Silva, who is known as Manchester City’s midfield magician, is pure quality with the ball at his feet, but does not have the speed that Sterling possesses.
The Englishman, in his new role, would not necessarily be a replacement for Silva, but could be an addition to the Spaniard. His presence centrally would also be a huge asset whenever City have the opportunity to counterattack through the middle of the pitch.
In Guardiola’s first year at City he had to contend with ageing full-backs, who had lost their pace. While he did sometimes used Sterling centrally, he was more needed as a winger due to City’s defensive problem.
Now this issue has been solved, through the recent addition of full-backs Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo, it is no surprise to see Guardiola presently experiencing a revelation regarding Sterling’s effectiveness in central areas, having used him in that position to good effect during pre-season.
Sterling’s goal and performance against Everton would have further hammered home the point.
There are a few strategies Guardiola could look to deploy, with regard to Raheem Sterling, in a formation with three defenders at the back. Replacing the second striker with the Englishman, as mentioned previously, is one option.
He could also use Sterling as a wing-backs, but that would reduce his presence in the forward attacking areas due to defensive responsibilities. Also, until Guardiola is comfortable that his central defenders are performing better than they did last year, this might not be the wisest of moves.
Another option would be to play a 3-4-3, in which he would play to the right of the striker, as usual, but with a license to move into central areas or even right across the final third. Whenever he does this, the right wing-back could fill the space Sterling vacates during City’s attacking moves.
Pep Guardiola’s recent rediscovery of Sterling’s effectiveness in central areas, brought about through the use of the current team formation, makes the young player as exciting a prospect as any new signing this season.
Raheem Sterling’s preferred position is in the middle and he could flourish with the greater freedom of a trequartista/number 10 role that would allow him to utilise his dangerous dribbling, pace and combination play. This is something that City have shown they still need, despite the new signings made over the summer.