Mikel Arteta: Raheem Sterling has conquered fear to become Manchester City goal-machine
Champions League hat-trick against Atalanta takes the English forward's tally to 16 goals for the season
If Raheem Sterling now induces fear in defenders, there is a time when he was afraid of the goal. It is strange to say so, given he left the Etihad Stadium pitch on Tuesday with the match-ball under his arm, having orchestrated the 5-1 thrashing of Atalanta and scored his fourth hat-trick since March.
Yet Sterling’s lack of confidence, his anxiety about missing, used to manifest itself in a reluctance to get into goalscoring positions. Now it is safe to say he has conquered that fear.
The transformation of Manchester City’s top scorer was partly positional, but partly a case of giving him a predator’s mentality to attack the box time and again.
Sterling had never scored more than 12 goals in a season before he played for Pep Guardiola. Now he has 70 goals for club and country since the start of the 2017/18 season and 16 in 17 games in the current campaign. He has become a goal-a-game man.
“We wanted him much closer to the penalty area. It was like he was a bit scared of the goal," Mikel Arteta, Guardiola’s assistant, said. "We wanted him to become the type of player who would get us a goal a game, or even just missing two or three big chances.
"We wanted him constantly generating a goal threat. And we wanted him to lose the fear. He needed to believe in himself, to believe he could be the best.”
Which he is becoming. Sterling was initially intimidated by his £44 million (Dh208m) fee, though it has subsequently proved a bargain.
Arteta told the Spanish journalists Pol Ballus and Lu Martin in their new book Pep’s City: “That huge transfer fee was actually pretty detrimental in terms of his self-confidence. When things didn’t come off, you could almost see Raz fading away.”
Now he is likelier to run away in celebration. When the final whistle blew on Tuesday, Sterling’s 16 goals this season meant he had more than Cristiano Ronaldo (12) and Lionel Messi (two) between them.
Robert Lewandowski’s double against Olympiakos took his tally to 21 but, apart from the Pole, the men who tend to be a byword for potency – Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – are trailing in Sterling’s wake. He is outscoring the specialist scorers.
Guardiola drew on his past working with one of the most clinical of all to turn Sterling from sporadic to serial scorer. His Barcelona teammate Romario claimed more than 1,000 goals in his career and Guardiola felt the Brazilian was at his most dangerous on the half-turn. City have sought to change Sterling’s body position when he receives the ball.
But a counter-intuitive ploy has also been key. Guardiola wanted Sterling to start a little deeper. “It’s a tactic, dropping off a little, so that your defender gets drawn into a position he mightn’t want to be in,” Arteta said. “It leaves space behind him and Raheem can attack that space.” Sterling’s second goal against Atalanta came when he sprang the offside trap, attacking the space behind their defence.
The potential, though, was always there. City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain had identified it when he bought Sterling in 2015, a year before Guardiola’s arrival but with his fellow Catalan in mind.
“He had a spark, a capacity to shake off markers,” Begiristain told Ballus and Martin. “He’s explosive and above all he’s got that burst of pace. Even then, it was clear he was a guy who loved to cut in, too.”
It is as the inverted winger, the right footer cutting in from the left, that Sterling has become still more prolific. He is not scared any more.
Updated: October 24, 2019 09:08 AM