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'Sterling has an unshakable faith in God and in the fact that his own talent is God-given'

An extract from a new book explains how Pep Guardiola transformed the winger into a world-class star.

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling (file pic)
Manchester City's Raheem Sterling (file pic)
Image: Mike Egerton

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam by Lu Martín and Pol Ballús.

Another day at the CFA. Physios, medics and support staff are the first to arrive, followed by the players who troop in one by one. Music booms out of the dressing room as they get changed for training.

Early bird Bernardo Silva is in first as usual and the jokes are already flying. Mostly at his expense. John Stones, Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph are having a good-natured but heated argument about something on the radio.

Leroy Sané grabs the chance to pick De Bruyne’s brain. David Silva is in business mode, talking with Vincent Kompany and Kun Agüero – a cabinet meeting of this team’s senior figures. The kit men bustle about, handing out new kit; physios issue reminders of timeslots on the massage table or in the rehab swimming pool.

In the midst of it all, one man sits reading the Bible: the 24-year- old Londoner, Raheem Sterling.

Sterling has an unshakable faith in God and in the fact that his own talent is God-given. This is how he understands all that he has achieved, both as part of the City winning machine and also individually, named as the player of the year for 2018-19 by the
English football writers. Sterling’s relationship with the press was not always like that.

Kevin De Bruyne, in a piece with the Players Tribune, explained how the way Sterling was written about framed his early days at City, and how far removed the character portrayed in those stories was from the real Raheem.

Before I came to Manchester City, I didn’t really know what to make of this Raheem Sterling guy. I had never met him, and from what I’d read about him in the English press, I thought he was going to be a very different character. Raheem and I have this strong connection, because we arrived at City around the same time, and there was a lot of negativity about us in the press. They said I was ‘the Chelsea reject’. They said Raheem was this flashy guy who left Liverpool for money. They said we were difficult characters. Truthfully, I don’t have many close friends – inside or outside of football. It takes me a really long time to open up to people. But over time, I got closer to Raheem, because our sons were born around the same time, so they would always play together. He couldn’t be more different from what the tabloids were saying. This is the real truth: Raheem is one of the nicest, most humble guys I’ve met in football.”

Pep Guardiola has trouble pronouncing Sterling’s nickname ‘Raz’ and still calls him ‘Rash’ but the coach had no difficulty in spotting his latent talent from their very first training session together, despite the fact Sterling was not on his best form.

newcastle-united-v-manchester-city-premier-league-st-james-park Kevin De Bruyne paid tribute to Raheem Sterling in a Players Tribune piece. Source: Richard Sellers

Sterling joined City the year before Guardiola left Munich, in July 2015, for a record £50m – at that time the highest fee paid for an English player. After a lacklustre first season, he joined England for their disastrous 2016 Euro campaign which saw them knocked out by Iceland in the last 16. A disappointing first year followed by a disastrous summer.

Enter Pep. City’s football director, Txiki Begiristain, had signed Sterling specifically in anticipation of Pep taking over.

“He had a spark, a capacity to shake off markers. He’s explosive and above all he’s got that burst of pace which takes effective wide players to the goal line. Even then, it was also clear that he was a guy who loved to cut in, too.”

Begiristain’s football instincts were correct. Under the guidance of Pep and his team, Sterling has become a truly world-class player.

In his first season under Manuel Pellegrini, Sterling only managed six league goals and by the second half of the campaign had lost his place as a regular starter.

“The huge transfer fee was actually pretty detrimental in terms of his self-confidence, which is so important for any player. As things didn’t come off for him you could almost see Raz fading away,” explains Mikel Arteta, who was still playing for Arsenal at the time.

The following year, Arteta joined Pep and Domènec Torrent at City and he began to work closely with Sterling.

We wanted him much closer to the penalty area. It was like he was a bit scared of the goal. We wanted him to become the kind of player who would get us a goal every game, or even just missing two or three big chances. We wanted him constantly generating goal threat. And we wanted him to lose the fear. He needed to believe in himself, to believe that he could be the best.”

The new regime had an almost immediate impact. Suddenly his head was up, he was running more than ever and, by Pep’s second season, had formed one of the most lethal attacking forces in the history of the Premier League with Leroy Sané and Sergio Agüero, between them scoring 67 of the team’s total of 140 goals.

First, however, the coaching team had to realign Sterling for his role on the right of Guardiola’s trident. Mikel Arteta: “He’d picked up a few bad habits along the way. He’d played on the inside a lot or out on the left wing. When you move to the right wing, the direction and angle of possession coming to you is very different. When the ball reached him he really had his gaze fixed on it – rather than half-touch instinctive control and the vision of what’s around him.”

soccer-uefa-champions-league-group-a-barcelona-v-manchester-united-nou-camp-stadium Guardiola wanted Sterling to be like Romario in his Barcelona heyday. Source: EMPICS Sport

Sterling was static when he got the ball. Guardiola’s solution was to try to turn him into City’s version of Romario, the coach’s old Barcelona teammate and a World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994.

Pep Guardiola: “In that Dream Team era, whenever I saw Romario with his back to the centre-halves I’d never give him the ball. But the instant I saw him on the half-turn with his shoulder dipping as if he wanted the ball fed into his right or left foot, I knew he thought he could explode away from his marker. In that instance I always hit the pass immediately. Every time. I’d learned that his vision meant he’d had one eye on the distance between him and the opposition goal and the other eye on where the ball was. If he opened up his body shape like that and I fed him the ball, the defender was automatically done for.”

The key to this strategy was Sterling’s acceleration. Guardiola’s analysis staff compare their forward’s explosive first steps to those of Leo Messi. While the Barcelona player doesn’t possess a sprinter’s speed over distance, his acceleration – combined with an intuitive sense of when to make his move – leaves defenders in his wake.

Thus began the Romario-fication of Raheem. The plan was that Sterling should make a habit of dropping slightly further away from his marker, or nearest opponent, when looking to receive possession, his body turned towards the goal. In that position, if he then gunned his extraordinary accelerator, the sprint was always to the danger area.

Arteta: “If he’s found a space about three metres off his defender but he’s half-turned towards the goal then his sprint takes him much more quickly to a space where he can shoot and that’s going to cause the rival much more damage. It’s also a tactic, dropping off a little, so that your defender gets drawn into a position he mightn’t want to be in. It leaves space behind him and Raheem can attack that space. If it’s close to, or in the penalty area, they also have to hesitate before putting in a challenge.”

Arteta is drawing on facts with his assessment. For example, in the 1-0 Champions League victory over Feyenoord in November 2017, Sterling pulled all of this together. He dropped off at the edge of the box, drawing his defender, Renato Tapia, with him and, with his back to goal, shunted a quick pass backwards to Gündoğan. The instant he released the ball, he swivelled and burst into one of his 0-60 sprints, into the space where Tapia had been.

Gündoğan read the move, slid the one-two pass into that space. One-vs-one with the
keeper, Sterling lofted it over Brad Jones for City’s winning goal. Sterling played increasingly on the left wing in season 2018-19, although Guardiola continued to move him around a lot. His partnership with Bernardo Silva went from strength to strength, meaning that Leroy Sané figured much less in the starting XI.

newcastle-united-v-manchester-city-premier-league-st-james-park Mikel Arteta was also an influence on Sterling's development. Source: Richard Sellers

The PFA Young Player of the Year won by Sané in 2018 went to Sterling in 2019, after he finished the season with a personal best of 25 goals and 18 assists from 51 games. By November 2018 City had seen enough to extend Sterling’s contract through season 2022-23.

Yet Guardiola continues to see room for improvement. Take the coach’s critique of him after the home game against Watford on March 9, 2019, in which he had scored a hat-trick by the 64th minute.

“Sterling could do better. He didn’t follow his full-back two times. He lost two, three or four balls which he has to avoid because he conceded counter-attacks. Of course, I am so glad in terms of what he has done, scoring three goals. The first half was not the best Raheem has done this season and we will work on that.”

If Sterling changed gears on the pitch during season 2018-19, the same can be said of his life in the public eye. By the end of the season, his had become one of the most influential voices in the fight against racism.

At Liverpool, he was headbutted in the street and called the n-word. On December 16, 2017, as he got out of his car at City’s training ground, a Manchester United supporter with a history of football-related violence, kicked and shouted racial abuse at Sterling.

Then, during City’s first league defeat of the season, against Chelsea on December 8, 2018, came a turning point.

During the first half, as Sterling leaned forward to pick up the ball in front of the Matthew Harding Stand, several home supporters were captured by cameras screaming obscenities at him, with one allegedly subjecting him to racist abuse. Chelsea suspended four fans from attending matches while they conducted an investigation into the alleged abuse.

The following day, Sterling posted on Instagram drawing a correlation between the media’s treatment of black footballers and “racism and aggressive behaviour” from the stands.

As an example, he juxtaposed the Daily Mail’s coverage of two young players, one black (Tosin Adarabioyo) the other white (Phil Foden), buying homes for their respective mothers. While the headline on the Adarabioyo story read: ‘Young Manchester City footballer, 20, on £25,000 a week splashes out on mansion on market for £2.25m despite having never started a Premier League match,’ the headline on the Foden piece read: ‘Manchester City starlet Phil Foden buys new £2m home for his mum.’

Sterling concluded: “All I have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity and give all players an equal chance.”

Sterling has a Kalashnikov tattooed on his right leg. The one that scores the goals and terrifies opponents. Not so long ago The Sun newspaper used the tattoo to attack the player. Just ahead of England’s 2018 World Cup campaign, the newspaper published a photo of the tattoo under the headline: Raheem shoots himself in the foot. Sterling immediately defended himself on social media.

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“When I was two my dad was gunned to death. A long time ago I made a promise to myself that I would never touch a gun in my lifetime. I shoot with my right foot, so it has deeper meaning. And it’s still unfinished.”

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Four months after the incident at Chelsea, on March 25, 2019, Sterling and his black teammates were subject to vicious racial abuse from the local fans during England’s 5-1 away win over Montenegro.

After scoring his country’s fifth goal, Sterling ran to the opposing stand and celebrated by holding his ears. He posted the celebration picture on his Instagram after the match with the caption: “Best way to silence the haters (yeah I mean racists).”

The incident kicked off a huge debate in the UK media over how players should react to racist abuse.

“I wouldn’t personally agree with walking off. If you walk off they win,” was Sterling’s own view.

By the end of season 2018-19, he told The Times that any club whose fans hurl racist abuse should have nine points deducted. “It sounds harsh, but which fan will risk racist behaviour if it might relegate their team or ruin their title bid?”

Sterling was born in Kingston, Jamaica, where he lived until the age of five. Three years after his father was shot, his mother brought him to live in England, looking for a better life. He grew up in Brent, in the shadow of Wembley, a tough, deprived area of north London, described by RightMove as one of the 10 worst places to live in the UK.

Yet Sterling has great memories of his childhood and has never forgotten his old neighbourhood. He treated 550 kids from his old school to tickets for City’s FA Cup semi-final against Brighton at Wembley and stepped in to save the local community centre in Stonebridge when it was put up for sale by the council.

When City played Newport in the FA Cup, he also took time out to meet a young fan, Ethan Ross, after the teenager’s grandmother wrote to thank Sterling for his work against racism and explained that her grandson was coping with similar abuse.

“It was probably as heart-warming for me as it was for you to finally meet up, Ethan”, Sterling wrote on Twitter after the meeting, telling the youngster to keep on fighting prejudice and report the incidents immediately.

Then in April, Sterling paid all the costs of Damary Dawkins’ funeral after hearing that the 13-year-old Crystal Palace youth player had tragically died of leukaemia.

Sterling’s forthright approach to combating prejudice has increased his marketability. Where once it was players like Sergio Agüero, De Bruyne and social media star Benjamin Mendy who attracted the big sponsorship money, now Sterling has joined them as a major commercial draw.

He gained control of the stories told about him at the same time as his productivity on the pitch began to reach new heights. He ended 2018-19 as the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year, a leading advocate in the fight against racism and one of the most dangerous forwards in Europe.

Pep’s City: The Making of a Super Team by Pol Ballus and Lu Martin is published by BackPage Press and Polaris Publishing and is available now. More info here.

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