Manchester City knew that Raheem Sterling was worth making the most expensive English player in history when they agreed a record breaking £49m deal with Liverpool in the summer of 2015.
Sterling was fine at City to begin with, but he was still only 20 when he first made the move and it wasn’t until he began to mature and Pep Guardiola later arrived at the Etihad Stadium that he made the strides to becoming the world class star we know today.
Sterling was a prodigious talent from a young age and first joined the youth ranks at QPR. But top clubs, including Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and City all had an eye on him. His mother, worried by gang culture, was keen for him to get out of London, allowing Liverpool to sign the player as a 15-year-old, committing up to £2m towards a deal with QPR.
He made his first-team debut for the Reds less than two years later aged 17 and 107 days in March 2012 and became a regular fixture in the senior side the following season.
Sterling was a generational talent. But the thing with generational talents who possess that much ability so young is that it doesn’t always go to plan, for any number of reasons. Talent is only half the battle and the player still has to work hard at it to achieve any sort of lasting success.
Sterling won the prestigious Golden Boy award in 2014, joining an illustrious list of former winners like Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero. Yet other previous winners that eventually fizzled out without fulfilling their potential included Anderson, Alexandre Pato and Mario Balotelli.
It was clear as Liverpool went backwards following a surprise title charge in 2013/14 that Sterling had already reached the ceiling at Anfield, with the Merseyside club no longer at that time able to provide his talent with the next level platform it needed.
Inconsistency, as it would be for most young players of that age, was the most appropriate description of Sterling early on at City. He struggled to make an impact in a team in transition, but there were moments – such as his first career hat-trick in a Premier League clash with Bournemouth, or two goals and an assist in a Champions League win over Monchengladbach.
Guardiola’s arrival in Manchester in 2016 was a pivotal moment for Sterling. Almost straightaway he received personal assurances from the new boss that he would be a key component of his new-look City project following a disappointing Euro 2016 with England and the abuse – plenty of it utterly vile and racist, the by-product of targeted tabloid harassment that long continued – that entailed.
Lots of world class players, particular forwards, have a key period in their career when something ‘clicks’ and their impact goes through the roof. Often it is when the mental side of the game catches up with the technical and they learn how to make the most effective use of their ability in any given moment. For Cristiano Ronaldo it was in 2006, while Lionel Messi had it in 2008.
The off-field abuse and harassment would have broken many a player, but Sterling fought against it.
On the training pitch, he allowed himself to be moulded by Guardiola. The revered coach has tweaked Sterling’s game – minor adjustments in key moments are sometimes all it takes to make a huge difference at elite level where most players are hugely talented as a minimum.
Yet, in his own assessment, the most important thing he has learned from Guardiola, beyond any tactical or technical advice, is constantly demanding the highest standards from himself.
The best players in any sport reach the top because they are never satisfied and are always targeting more and that is the mentality Sterling has applied to his own game over the last four years.
“I take a lot of positives from [Guardiola], purely by the way he carries himself, the way he sets those high standards,” Sterling explained in the summer of 2019. “It rubs off. That has improved me the most: the standards he sets. It makes sure I don’t fall from my standards.”
It paid dividends for Sterling and City when the 2017/18 season kicked off as his performances and contributions were crucial to an 18-game winning streak between August and December that effectively decided the title race. He got 12 goals and six assists during that run alone.
By the end of the campaign, Sterling had contributed 40 combined goals and assists in only 46 appearances across all competitions. The following season as City retained the title under immense pressure from Liverpool it was 29 in the Premier League and 43 in all competitions.
City amassed 198 points across those two Premier League season and Sterling was making the kind of consistently devastating game-changing impact that defines a world class player. Meanwhile, on top of league honours, Sterling added EFL Cup honours in 2017/18 and won a domestic treble in 2018/19. In the latter, he was also named FWA Footballer of the Year.
Towards the end of 2018, Sterling became a game-changer with England. His record at international level had previously been the subject of much criticism, but his deadly sharpening was not limited to Manchester City games and he played a major role in qualifying for Euro 2020.
He kicked off the campaign with a hat-trick against Czech Republic and either scored or assisted – usually both – in each of the seven qualifier he played. Most notably was perhaps a brace and assist against a soundtrack of horrific racist abuse in Bulgaria.
City fell short when it came to trophies in 2019/20, but Sterling maintained and exceeded his individual levels. It marked the first season that he surpassed the 30-goal milestone in all competitions, while he got 20 in the Premier League alone. It was the first time since 2010/11 that Sergio Aguero wasn’t the club’s top scorer.
The next test for Sterling is whether he can now help deliver the elusive Champions League trophy that City are still chasing. He only recently turned 26, should now be entering the peak of his career, and still even has plenty of time to get even better as he matures further.