FootballPremier League

Raheem Sterling is even better than he gets credit for and this season he’ll prove it

August 16, 2019

FOR the best footballers there is a moment of elevation, a holy period when they ascend from what seemed like a ceiling in their ability to new heights.

Think of 2006-07 for Cristiano Ronaldo, or 2015-16 for Harry Kane, or 2017-18 for Mohamed Salah. Good players can become great players, great players can become imperious, and if there’s a candidate for this shift in 2019-20 then it feels like Raheem Sterling is that person.

22 of the 66 starters for the Big Six teams in the first week of the Premier League season were English but Sterling was the best of them. He is not 25 until December but this is Sterling’s ninth league season, and his total of 140 wins in England’s top-flight is just two short of the amount Michael Owen recorded in his entire Premier League career.

Owen, like Sterling, began at Liverpool and left Anfield to pursue honours, but by his mid-20s his career was already tailing off. A hamstring injury against Leeds at the age of 19 inexorably reduced Owen’s effectiveness in his 20s even as his reputation grew.

For Sterling it’s pretty much been the reverse journey: his performances have improved year on year as his reputation has lagged. Monstrously unwarranted criticism from swathes of the media at various points since he left Liverpool in 2015 eventually became so absurd that even a player far less engaging and thoughtful than Sterling would have emerged as the moral victor.

As it is, Sterling is now arguably the most important voice in British sport, able to reach and influence more people with a single post on Instagram than most newspapers can do in a week.

Sterling in the PL

Manchester City

Liverpool

Games

132

95

Goals

51

18

Goals/90

0.46

0.23

Expected Goals

45.5

16.7

Assists

29

14

Big Chance Conversion %

55.2%

35.3%

Sterling will never need to rely on raw numbers to demonstrate his inexorable improvement at City but they do so all the same. 0.46 goals per 90 is twice the rate he recorded at Liverpool, while his big chance conversion is running at over 55%, up from around 35% in the Anfield days.

Being able to tuck away clear cut chances is a sort of litmus test for footballers, of their own finishing ability of course but also of their reputation amongst the media and fans. Sterling is someone who has progressively improved in this area throughout his career yet still gets spoken about as someone who is likely to waste opportunities.

Examine the evidence. Sterling’s big chance conversion in 2018-19 was 60%, the best rate of any regular player who wasn’t his club’s main penalty taker (a spot kick counting, of course, as a big chance). That put him above plenty of names who have been labelled inconsistent in front of goal far less often than Sterling, including Marcus Rashford (24%), Bernardo Silva (27%), Callum Wilson (28%), Alexandre Lacazette (28%), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (36%), David Silva (40%), Mohamed Salah (47%), Raul Jimenez (47%), Jamie Vardy (49%), Diogo Jota (50%), Harry Kane (52%), Roberto Firmino (53%), Eden Hazard (56%), Sadio Mane (58%) and Sergio Aguero (58%).

When was the last time you heard Bernardo Silva being described as wasteful in front of goal? When was the last time you heard Raheem Sterling being described as wasteful in front of goal?

Gianluigi Buffon, who has seen more attackers in action than most of us, said of Harry Kane in 2017 “as a player, you can always work on parts of your game and try to improve, but there are some things you can’t teach. That natural goalscoring instinct for me is a talent that you are born with.” Kane had 138 shots in all competitions in 2018-19 and scored 24 goals; Sterling had 113 shots and scored 25.

Now last season wasn’t the finest of Kane’s career but if finishing is, as Buffon claims, entirely natural then the fact the Tottenham man had more shots than Sterling (neatly, both of them had 31 clear cut chances) should have seen Kane score more goals.

In reality, finishing ability is as eminently trainable as anything else, and Raheem Sterling is playing under one of the game’s great managers in one of English football’s most impressive line-ups. His improvement has been unremitting in the past three seasons, and, if he can stay clear of serious injury, has plenty of ceiling room to move into yet.