Not so long ago, an FA Cup tie against League Two’s Swindon Town (live on ESPN+, Friday Jan. 7 at 3 p.m. ET) would have been viewed as an opportunity for Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling to get some much-needed game time. Instead, the 27-year-old might expect Friday night off at the County Ground in preparation for Chelsea‘s visit to the Etihad Stadium next week.
Sterling, in his best form for more than a year, is back as one of Pep Guardiola’s key men. He has gone from starting six of City’s first 17 games this season to producing a run of eight goals in his last 11 appearances as the Premier League champions have put their foot down in the race for another title.
Sterling’s fall out of favour, beginning in March of last year, was so severe that he chose to put contract talks with City on hold until he had a better idea of his long-term prospects. Sources have told ESPN it reached the point that he thought about moving on loan in January, although City never really considered it.
Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain remain interested and, into the last 18 months of his current deal, his future is up in the air, while PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino is also said to be a big fan. Sterling’s form has made sure extending his contract is a priority for City chiefs Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, but without fresh terms being agreed, he would be available for nothing in June 2023.
Sources have told ESPN that Sterling would like to play abroad one day but so far no decision has been made about where he will sign his next contract.
Even Guardiola admits that an offer from Barcelona — rebuilding or not — is very hard to turn down; Real Madrid fall into the same category for a player determined to end his career with as many medals and accolades as possible. One of Sterling’s ambitions is to win the Ballon d’Or, though he finished 15th in the voting in November.
Sources have told ESPN that during his spell out of the team, players and coaches were impressed with Sterling’s application in training which helped win back the City’s manager’s trust. Guardiola says Sterling “deserves all the credit” for the way he has rediscovered his form, joking that he was tempted to say the turnaround was down to him to help get a “bigger contract.”
There has also been a theory among some backroom staff that Sterling had started to believe he was only playing well if he was scoring goals, and work has been done behind the scenes to remind him there are other ways to be effective.
“Sometimes to help the team, the basics is enough,” Guardiola said in October. “After that the confidence comes back. I’m not going to tell Raheem he doesn’t have the quality he had in the last six years. He’s the same guy. Come back to the basics and step-by-step he will come back.”
It’s worked, and Guardiola believes Sterling is getting back to the level which saw him score 31 goals in 52 games during the 2019-20 season. That year his goals weren’t enough to stop Liverpool from winning the title, but this time his purple patch in front of goal has coincided with City winning 11 straight league games to open up a 10-point lead at the top.
“The last three weeks, one month, was one of the best moments that he’s had on the pitch in the last year or year and a half I would say,” Guardiola told Sky Sports recently. “Now he’s back in terms of, I see him really well. A long time, I didn’t see him.”
Even during the low points over the past 12 months, Sterling’s attitude never came into question. Guardiola tells a story about how, with the squad ravaged by injury ahead of a trip to Aston Villa in December, he told Sterling he would only be on the bench. On the morning of the game, Ilkay Gundogan had to pull out and Sterling was named as a late replacement. There were concerns Sterling’s mood might be low after originally being left out but instead, according to Guardiola, the first 20 minutes at Villa Park were “his best for months.”
Sterling’s return to form, and the emergence of 19-year-old Cole Palmer, encouraged Begiristain to accept Ferran Torres‘ request to move to Barcelona in January despite City facing a hectic second half of the season fighting in three competitions. Without a recognised striker, Sterling, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish have had to adapt to fill in as the No. 9 in Guardiola’s system and Sterling, in particular, has spent time on the training pitch in an attempt to become more familiar with the role.
It’s unlikely to be a long-term positional change with City still intent on signing a striker in the summer — preferably Tottenham’s Harry Kane or Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland — but sources have told ESPN that Sterling has been determined to do everything he can to play as many games as possible, whatever the role. Playing regular football will be the key factor when he makes a final decision about his future. When he does, the biggest clubs in Europe will be queuing up. Sterling is back.