IN seven years with Manchester City, with the exception of an elusive Champions League triumph, Raheem Sterling has done – and won – it all.
He has been a major contributor to four Premier League titles, part of a nine-medal haul in his time at the Etihad, and has scored 131 goals en route to becoming one of the most well-rounded and feared attacking players in Europe.
It’s hard to imagine – beyond, of course, the Champions League – what hurdles are left for Sterling to surmount. He is a player whose status as one of the best at what he does is cemented. Which is why it makes complete sense that the 27-year-old is supposedly contemplating a change of scenery. Mastering a new challenge would be the best way to enhance his already significant legacy.
Sterling’s career to date can essentially be divided into two clear phases. The first covers his breakthrough into the Liverpool first team as a dynamic and electrifying teenager, ripping into opposition defences with his pace, spinning around and away from markers with his low centre of gravity and, in 2014, combining with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to form an attacking trio so potent it almost delivered a long-awaited.
The second phase essentially encompasses the period, 2016 to present, in which Sterling has fallen under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage. In that time, he has developed a more comprehensive attacking skillset and a ruthless approach to seeking chances and scoring goals.
Sterling has become the perfect wide forward for Guardiola’s system. He combines elements of attackers with whom the Catalan tactician has enjoyed success in the past, sharing a darting elusiveness with Lionel Messi, the off-ball graft of Thomas Muller and the intelligent inside movement from wide areas and punching finishing of Pedro.
“He is an exceptional player,” Guardiola enthused of the England attacker back in February 2020. “With his physicality he plays all the minutes. He is one of the most fantastic players I ever had in my career.
“He is a better player than when he arrived. He’s exceptional. I am pretty sure of his mentality and desire to win and improve a lot. He deserves a lot. I wish in three, four, five years he will be a much, much better player than he is today.”
And late last season the City boss was again in reflective mood when asked about Sterling. “What he has done in our time together, with the numbers and statistics, is amazing,” he said.
Sterling has also thrived on the international scene in this time. He is one of the first names on Gareth Southgate’s England team-sheet and has amassed 19 goals in 77 caps. He starred for the Three Lions in a run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia and last summer was named in the Team of the Tournament for his vital role as England finished runners-up to Italy in the European Championship.
Sterling proved early on that, even as a raw teen, he can be a game-changing presence. And at City he has shown immense adaptability, intelligence and resilience in fitting into a bespoke system and forging sustained success within it.
The next step could be to break away from that system, within which he has become supremely comfortable, his every movement precise and honed. That could come in the form of a return to his native London, with Chelsea reportedly front-runners in the £40m-plus race for his signature. There, the further elevation of his game would require him to be the star man and experienced head in an attack aiming to gun down City at the Premier League’s summit. At Stamford Bridge, he would be more focal point than functioning part.
Or it could be a move abroad. Real Madrid are long-rumoured Sterling suitors. The home of the reigning 14-time European champions would offer the most likely destination for Sterling to complete his club-level medal collection. Thriving outside the Premier League would add further kudos to his already-glittering list of accomplishments.
Throw in another star turn in a deep tournament run for England at the World Cup this coming winter and Sterling’s case to be considered an all-time English great, rather than simply one of the best of the current talent-rich generation, will be undeniable.
There are worlds left for Sterling to conquer. He just might have to venture from the Etihad to find them.