The top clubs in England offered Raheem Sterling who knows how much money and an outside shot at becoming part of their club’s lore when he was just in elementary school. Mom wasn’t sold. She told her son the big clubs have six other 10 year-olds just like him. She said he should go somewhere small, be someone’s star, and get all the attention.
Sterling became the darling of Queens Park Rangers. He grew under their admiration, and then made his big move to Liverpool seven years later. He blossomed with the Reds, but his personal success wasn’t leading to the club’s. By 2015, Liverpool and Sterling hadn’t won a trophy. The club had lost Luis Suarez the year before and at the season's end, they were set to lose Steven Gerard. It was in question whether they’d qualify for the Champion’s League next year; they didn’t. The future of the club was in question.
Things became worse when the Liverpool executive suite got desperate. They needed something positive to excite fans and attract other top players. How about a budding star’s signature? They proposed to Sterling before the end of the season, asked him to sign a long-term deal, while everyone was watching, and get filthy rich with Red money.
“I’m flattered,” Sterling said. “But not now.”
He didn’t want to think about signing a contract during the season. He had two years left on his current deal. He wanted to focus on winning games, applying his craft, being a footballer. He was just 20 years old. Why rush to sign with a team that looked stalled? Sterling wanted championships. Any Premier League club pays a life-changing amount of money, so more cash wasn’t going to sway him.
Liverpool’s executives and the media didn’t let up.
His manager, Brendan Rogers, brought up the contract in press conferences, so journalists did too. Sterling wouldn't budge -- not during the season.
Enter all the talking heads in the studios and writers paid to have opinions. Club legends started badmouthing him in the press. Saying things like, “He still hasn’t learned,” “Liverpool is the best place for him,” “You keep your mouth shut and get on with playing football.” It’s only natural that fans started booing him. The very people who were supposed to protect him, the institution of Liverpool, the “You’ll never walk alone” crew, shoved him under the bus.
Who would stick around for that?
Sterling joined Manchester City the same year Kevin De Bruyne did. De Bruyne was coming from the German club Wolfsburg. This was his second go at the Premier League — he’d failed to win a spot at Chelsea in 2013 and was shipped off to Germany. Back in 2015, De Bruyne and Sterling were coming to Manchester highly coveted yet unproven. They were buried seeds with the same mission: do whatever the team needs to win.
When Pep Guardiola was hired as the manager, winning became a lot easier. Pep had a cash-rich executive suite behind him, arguably Europe’s most competitive domestic league in front of him, and world-class players at his disposal. Give him gold, and he’ll build you a magnificent city. We all know what the team has accomplished since.
Perhaps nobody this year has bared witness to the development of the De Bruyne-Sterling partnership like Arsenal. The Gunners got revenge in a recent FA Cup match, but in two Premier League matches, Man City trounced them 3-0 both times. Sterling and De Bruyne combined for five of the six goals scored.
Let’s take a look at the first trouncing. It was December 15, and De Bruyne brought the Christmas presents early. Just 55 seconds in, City picked up the ball inside their own box following an Arsenal corner, and after 30 seconds of keep-away, City’s Brazilian switchblade Fernandinho played the first killer ball: a pass to fellow countryman Gabriel Jesus that got him through two Arsenal defensive lines and into the left side of the box.
In the photo above, you can see Sterling has pushed forward to the far post, occupying the defender, but staying behind him to hide his position. It's smart, in-control play. If the ball was crossed, the defender wouldn’t know where Sterling was coming from.
Well done, but Sterling got no presents on this play.
Jesus’ last act before diving to the ground was to slot back the second killer ball of the move: a wobbler past two helpless defenders into the 13 yards of space cleared by Sterling. De Bruyne was standing at the other edge of that space, all alone. He’d beat his man down the field by 10 yards.
Sterling watched Jesus’ pass go behind him, and he had about a quarter of a second to choose what to do: drop to the ground or take De Bruyne’s rocket of a shot to the face. Sterling liked his face and getting the hell out of the way was what the team needed.
De Bruyne was on one.
The City pounding continued in the 15th minute. The goal, again, started from a failed Arsenal attack. City stopped the Gunners at the top of the box, and Arsenal put on a lazy press to keep them pinned. Phil Foden, City’s 20-year old superstar in the making, did the smart thing: got the fuck off the ball. He one touched it to De Bruyne at midfield.
The play developed into a two-on-five: City’s two were, of course, De Bruyne and Sterling, and the Arsenal five were the highest paid group of schlubs ever to be anonymized. Look at the trouble they had Sterling and De Bruyne in.
No way through.
Three defenders were blocking De Bruyne from getting a pass to Sterling. Two were cutting off passing lanes. The attack should have been over.
What kind of magic, luck, skill, or deal at the crossroads do you make to pull that pass off?
De Bruyne knows.
Sterling made the same run he did for the first goal, to the far post. The Arsenal defender checked behind him to see if Sterling was there, but he looked over his goal-side shoulder and marked empty space. He didn't see Sterling lurking a few yards the opposite way.
Sterling’s finish looks as easy as it gets, and that’s how a perfect goal should end. The team should work the ball up the field and an attacker should fulfill their main purpose: stand in front of the goal, make their leg a pendulum, pop it in, and in this case, make De Bruyne’s greatness count. But that finish is not so easy. Your mind can put the ball in the goal before you do.
What is easy is Phil Foden’s play. In the 40th minute, City were knocking the ball around midfield when Phil did nearly the same thing he’d done for the second goal. For the third, it was two quick touches before Arsenal defenders could close on him. He passed the ball a grand total of three yards, again to De Bruyne, and that was the fuse that lit the whole thing.
It looked like the play might turn into something for Sterling. De Bruyne had let Foden’s pass run past him, and he galloped into the open center of the field. Sterling was at the top of the box, his back to the goal, occupying two defenders. He was on for a quick one-two that could have sprung De Bruyne past the Arsenal defensive line, but Sterling must have read something in his teammate’s dribbling. They were on the same frequency: do whatever to win.
De Bruyne wasn’t going to pass. He was taking the ball to the top of the box, right where Sterling was standing, and he was working it onto his favorite left foot.
The best thing Sterling could do was run.
Arsenal took their beating that day from De Bruyne, and Sterling dove to the ground, scattered from the top of the box, and did the important things that look easy and are barely mentioned to make sure he could do it.
That's how you get to win.