£49 million – that is what the City hierarchy decided to pay Liverpool for marauding winger Raheem Sterling back in the summer. It was a signing that excited most City fans, although I do believe that some had a vendetta against him from the moment he joined due to a mythical ‘poor attitude,’ which actually doesn’t exist. We are now nine months down the line and Sterling has been extremely inconsistent and has lacked the unpredictability that we signed him to provide. In reality this isn’t much of his fault – the 4-2-3-1 system we often play is too rigid and the build-up play is too slow to get the best out of a pacey winger who can go up the inside and the outside. Pellegrini has been a good manager for City, but the lack of development regarding Raheem Sterling could easily be the most negative legacy that he will leave. It, of course, is not over, Sterling is only young and Pep Guardiola has a knack for getting the best out of wide players. This year has, however, been a complete waste of time for Sterling.
History of Pellegrini
Manuel Pellegrini has generally preferred to operate without wingers. He built his Villarreal team around the likes of Juan Riquelme in a wide playmaker type position and he often played a narrow 4-4-2 with strikers providing the width and playmakers occupying inside positions. To an extent, he has adopted this at Manchester City, and we have been at our best with Silva and De Bruyne coming inside, linking up and being supported by energetic overlapping full-backs such as Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta. In his Málaga days he similarly played the likes of Antunes and Eliseu at full-back to get the best out of Isco, Santi Cazorla and Javier Portillo in the wide positions.
The relevance of this is that Pellegrini was clearly going to have to adapt his system to get the best out of Sterling, who I would argue should be the cornerstone of this team moving forward. He is that good, having the ability to play with both feet, to go up the inside or the outside, and to inflict destruction on an opposing full-back; the kind of skill set we need to build a team around. Manuel has adopted a 4-3-3 system now and again and it is in these games that Sterling has played really well. Sevilla away was the best performance of the season because Sterling was constantly getting the ball in motion as opposed to in front of the opposition back four. Raheem loves to get out and run and Pellegrini has rarely, if ever, played to these strengths. Below you will see some graphics of Sterling’s ‘passes received’ courtesy of Four Four Two’s Stat Zone – the first one is from the City-Sevilla game in Spain where we played 4-3-3, the second comes from the 3-0 away defeat to Liverpool where Sterling was barely involved due to the slow build-up play and poor tactics.
What we can learn from these graphics is that Sterling is playing too deep in the 4-2-3-1 formation. He likes to receive the ball in space out-wide and we simply don’t do enough to create this space for him. 4-3-3 works well because it draws opposition defenders inside to combat the two central midfield players, which naturally creates more space out-wide. In the Sevilla game, Sterling was able to make nine take-ons. Against Liverpool, he made just three. You cannot expect a winger to run through a whole defence, you have to create space for him with quick incisive passing and positive movements. Pellegrini has hampered Sterling’s development with his inflexible tactics.
‘Merely a role player’
Our very own Anis Bazza called Raheem Sterling a ‘soft clay’ player who is just waiting to be moulded into something great. This was a valid comment but sadly Pellegrini has moulded this particular piece of clay into a mere role player. Whenever I watch Sterling, it seems as if Pellegrini doesn’t trust him at all, he spends most of the time just slipping reverse passes to Aleksandar Kolarov only for the Serb to blast a powerful cross into the right-back’s shins. Sterling should be taking players on and getting involved in the passing patterns with Nasri, Silva and De Bruyne, but instead he is stuck out wide to provide passes to Kolarov and occasionally hit a frustrated shot into the side netting. City fans often blame Sterling for these performances, but he is not put in a position where he can actually do much. He often gets the ball and has every possible dribbling angle already closed off, meaning he either passes it inside or slips it to Kolarov. This is a strange way to treat a massively important cornerstone of the future and it is proof Pellegrini is failing in that department. He doesn’t seem to be able to get the best out of direct players, his talent is working with wide playmakers but he should still have done more with Sterling this season. Playing Navas over him is an absolute outrage.
Wasted Time and Pellegrini’s legacy
I like a lot of things Pellegrini has done for this club – we play good football and there has been an attempt to modernise the defensive system, but the regression of Sterling is really frustrating. The lack of wing play means Pep Guardiola has a huge task on his hands and Sterling might actually take a fair amount of time to get fixed. Some people think he’s lazy, but their judgement is blinkered – he doesn’t need to be tracking back to the corner flag as we aren’t in the 1980s anymore. He needs to be up the field making things happen for this team. Some fan support for him would also help. People get on his back for the wrong reasons and he doesn’t deserve the blind criticism he gets from some. He is 21 years old and is one of the most complete young players in Europe – we are lucky to have him.