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Sterling Already A Key Piece of Pellegrini’s Puzzle

There are many ways to describe Raheem Sterling’s signing for Manchester City, many of which allude to his price. However, when speaking strictly about the youngster’s abilities as a player, from the Citizen’s perspective, there’s one word that stands out:

Different.

That is, precisely, how head coach Manuel Pellegrini chose to refer to him after Manchester City’s exciting 2-0 victory against Everton last Sunday.

“We have different pace with Sterling. It’s a different way to play. It’s important to have different things to do during the game,” Pellegrini told BBC Sports.

“I said when he arrived here that he is a different player to what we had last year; a player with his characteristics.”

Manchester City, who after three matches sit undisputed at the top of the Premier League table, have looked like an unstoppable offensive force since the beginning of the season. They’ve scored eight times in three matches, while giving up zero goals – a feat that appears even more impressive considering they’ve already faced Roberto Martinez’s Everton side and title-holders Chelsea.

And Sterling, the $70-million man, whose transfer was so methodically scrutinized at the beginning of the season, has already played an undeniable part in this success.

After the match against Everton, Pellegrini mentioned that “playing with David [Silva], with Kun [Aguero], with Yaya [Toure], [Sterling] will become better,” – but he failed to specify that all these “experienced players” have already looked improved themselves while playing next to Sterling.

While Manchester City didn’t look bad at all last season, they seemed to struggle at times to break through tougher defenses, particularly when playing against the bigger teams in the division. They were good at keeping the ball flowing throughout the pitch. But the lack of a “different” player to help stretch the opposing team often led to possession losses and situations in which the ball wound up jammed into dead-ends.

Though creative players like Samir Nasri or David Silva are immensely skilled at keeping possession, they are far more comfortable playing horizontal balls, or launching through balls from pockets of space. Manchester City needed a player like Sterling, whose explosive runs on and off the ball could provide relief. And with him, they already look better.

And that is a statement that applies not only to the collective, but also to individuals. Take Silva, for example.

Last season, several teams – including Arsenal, during their 2-0 victory over the Citizens – focused their defensive efforts on overcrowding the Spaniard’s area of influence, in order to regain possession, and cut the flow of play. However, with Sterling providing a threat and a distraction of the flanks, teams have found it unsustainable this season to focus solely on Silva – allowing the clever midfielder to put in a series of impressive performances at the helm of the team.

Even when his name has yet to show up on the scoreboard for Manchester City, Sterling’s qualities have opened up a number of new offensive channels for the team. His pace and off-the-ball skill have served to push defenses deep and wide. His on-the-ball trickery has helped turn rough over-populated spaces into fruitful attacking zones.

Last Saturday against Everton, Sterling put in a superb individual performance, serving several important passes, including what would become his first official assist for Manchester City: a clever through-ball that left-back Aleksandar Kolarov turned into a clever finish for the game’s first goal.

However, as is often the case in soccer, Sterling’s impact cannot be easily measured by the more conventional statistics. Sure, he will be looking to rake more of those in as the season progresses; but the other aspects of his play, as well as those of his teammates, already show how important he can become for his team.

Manchester City will face recently-promoted Watford next weekend, in what should be an easy fixture for the league leaders. Sterling, who has started all three games so far this season, will likely start that match, before reporting for international duty with the England squad.

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