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Sterling's rise from prodigious talent to complete player

Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling slotting past Bournemouth 'keeper Asmir Begovic for the second goal in their 4-0 rout on Saturday. With 12 league goals, the England international is enjoying his best return yet.
Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling slotting past Bournemouth 'keeper Asmir Begovic for the second goal in their 4-0 rout on Saturday. With 12 league goals, the England international is enjoying his best return yet.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • "I was getting sloppy," said Raheem Sterling, on his feet to demonstrate how.

At Liverpool, they marvelled at his receiving skills. He took the ball so naturally, on the half-turn, and went either way. He was the kid you could pass to in any tight spot and he - not Philippe Coutinho - was the No. 10 in several big games. That was Raheem, at 18 and 19.

Then he got sloppy.

"Everyone knows how to control a ball," he explained. "That's basic. But you get into habits, like controlling with the outside of your foot because you want it to look nice."

Now, you might have seen the clip on social media. Pep Guardiola and Sterling in training. Pep, the highly-strung choreographer, manhandling and yelling until Sterling has the right body shape when accepting possession; then Sterling scoring against Feyenoord, having followed the advice.

"If you control it like this, the ball's stuck under your feet. One touch, open up quicker, has switched my brain back on. 'Oh yeah - why aren't I doing that?'," Sterling mimed.

Returning to his old prodigious ways, but coupling this with a new maturity is the theme of Sterling's 2017-18 campaign.

ASSASSIN IN FRONT OF GOAL

I set my standards really high and put a lot of pressure on myself... The past few seasons I've been 10, 11 goals and I know that I can do better than those numbers... That's what I'm trying to improve - being ruthless.

RAHEEM STERLING, Manchester City forward, feels the killer instinct he has been honing will help him put away chances.

On Saturday, he put a challenging week that saw him racially abused at the club's training ground behind him by scoring in Manchester City's 4-0 win over Bournemouth.

The forward has been directly involved in 16 Premier League goals this season (12 goals, four assists) - his best return. And his manager Guardiola believes he is getting better all the time.

"With and without the ball, he's so aggressive and so intense. I like how clear it's becoming - he knows when to dribble and when to pass," said the Spaniard.

"Before there was a mistake, now he's enjoying scoring goals. In the past, it was a bit scary for him. He's loved in the locker room, he's a young player and important for the national team. He must maintain that level."

Ten of Sterling's goals in all competitions this season have come in the 80th minute or later to change a result and his late strikes have earned City nine points.

"You might not play beautiful every game," Sterling said. "But you need to be decisive. That is why we are bought in the first place, to be that match-winner."

The same penny drops with all the best attacking players. Goals, assists, pre-assists: what performances must boil down to.

Sterling does not baulk at the idea that he could become a regular 20-goal-a-season man for City.

"I set my standards really high and put a lot of pressure on myself," he said. "I want goals, I really do. The past few seasons I've been 10, 11 goals and I know that I can do better than those numbers. That was down to me not being as ruthless as I should. That's what I'm trying to improve - being ruthless."

Citing that Feyenoord strike, Sterling believes he is staying calmer in the box.

"Before it was like, 'Oh my God, I'm in front of goal'. It was excitement, 'I'm about to score here, aargh... I've missed'."

Yet at the suggestion scoring so many crucial goals must be new for him, he is indignant: "I need to send you a DVD from when I was 14."

That was when he was in Queen Park Rangers' academy and director Steve Gallen nicknamed him "Raheem Park Rangers" because he single-handedly won matches.

When he played for QPR, Under-18s attendances multiplied by five. Soon, he would score five goals in an FA Youth Cup tie for Liverpool and be named European Golden Boy.

That is the level he is challenging himself to reach as a senior player, and he is decluttering not just his football but his lifestyle.

"I probably wasn't living right," he admitted. "I was just training, going home. Now it's ice baths, leaving training later, doing extras. I've had a massage two or three times a day since the start of the season."

Like Tottenham striker Harry Kane, he employs his own chef.

Sterling turned 23 earlier this month. His birthday wish?

"More life. That's it," he said. "Just enjoy life, enjoy football, enjoy the time."

THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2017, with the headline 'Sterling's rise from prodigious talent to complete player'. Print Edition | Subscribe