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How Raheem Sterling’s slide epitomises Man City’s recent decline

Miguel Delaney
·3-min read
Raheem Sterling reacts to City’s draw with West Ham (Getty)
Raheem Sterling reacts to City’s draw with West Ham (Getty)

So small a movement, so illustrative of bigger issues, and much of this season as a whole.

As Raheem Sterling was put through for the second of his big late chances in the 1-1 draw with West Ham United, he took a poor touch, and went a few yards in the wrong direction.

It turned what might have been a great opportunity, where the percentages were loaded in his favour, into a much more difficult one.

And that was all through his own doing, rather than the work of the West Ham United defence or assertiveness of Lukasz Fabianski.

It was that missing last 5 per cent that finishes chances and completes players and teams.

Raheem Sterling reacts to City’s draw with West HamGetty
Raheem Sterling reacts to City’s draw with West HamGetty

This isn’t to necessarily say Sterling is not an absolute top-level player, but you only have to look back at the miss against Lyon in August to see how it has become a flaw in his game of late. It is also all the more striking because he was in such stunning form just over a year ago.

The same could be said of City as a whole of course.

That is what is really relevant about Sterling’s miss. It is not quite representative of his ability, but really his form, and that of his team. They are missing that final 5 per cent, and it is having a multiplier effect. These small elements have huge ripples.

Some of this comes down to how the top clubs and players have played in the last few years. Guardiola’s football - as well as that of Jurgen Klopp - requires 100 per cent application and intensity to be so good.

The issue is that the drop-off doesn’t quite work at the same rate. If they’re off 5 per cent in terms of application, it often translates to a drop-off of 20 per cent in terms of performance. This is because of how synchronised the teams need to be for the tactics.

This is what makes them more susceptible to dropped points, and why the threshold for champions is likely to be much lower.

City do have many specific problems of their own to exacerbate all these issues. Pep Guardiola was asked if he could understand why people wouldn’t have sympathy for them given their many advantages, and was obstinately reluctant to get into it.

The reasons for those problems are now doing the rounds: psychological fatigue within the club; the inevitable effect of Guardiola’s intensity; the failure in recruitment as regards the succession plan for senior players…

City’s midfield of Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan was not exactly intimidating, at least until Kevin De Bruyne came on. Sterling is far from the only senior player off form, either. It’s just that his two late chances were so significant, in so many senses.

They were decisive in the game, summed up wider issues in the City team, and also offered individual problems for Sterling to solve.

It is highly possible - and plausible - that the flow and cohesion of Guardiola’s side at their best has a multiplying effect on Sterling, too; that it brings out more in his game. It’s all just more seamless.

City used to create so many chances, and so bombard teams, that it was inevitable he would score so much more. That in turns creates more confidence - and more goals. City are now suffering the opposite.

There’s another telling stat in that regard. After six games, Guardiola’s side have now taken almost 50 per cent less shots than they did at the same point in their last title-winning season - 82 against 140.

That’s no small movement. But that’s what can be sensed in those clumsier touches, those less incisive runs.

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