Thursday, 2 November 2017

Sterling's form proving Guardiola's desire for Alexis was a want, not a need

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He is the interloper in the strikers' private party, the wide man surrounded by three of the most prolific centre forwards of their generation at the front of the race for the Golden Boot. Perhaps it is just how Pep Guardiola imagined it, a Manchester City winger not only among the Premier League's leading marksmen, but outstripping the supposed specialists by boasting a better goal-per-minute average than Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero and Romelu Lukaku.
Except that the winger in question is not Alexis Sanchez, an old ally from Barcelona who he spent the summer pursuing, but Raheem Sterling, the man who might have gone the other way in part-exchange. They meet at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, without having traded clubs but having swapped statuses: Sterling is the scorer now. The Englishman has seven league goals this season -- seven times as many as Sanchez -- and they have come at a remarkable rate of one every 72 minutes.
There is a case for arguing he scored two of the three most important goals of City's campaign (Kevin De Bruyne's winner at Chelsea being the other): the equaliser against Everton and the 97th-minute decider against Bournemouth. Take away Sterling's goals and City would have five fewer points. Remove Sanchez's lone strike, in added time against Everton, and Arsenal would have the same number. So far, the transfer that did not happen has benefited the club that was denied an attacking upgrade, in City, and not the one who had the supposed success of keeping hold of their star player.
Arsenal's decision to retain Sanchez for the final year of his contract has been called a £70 million gamble; they rebuffed a £60m offer for the Chilean, while his wages could account for the rest. Yet they wavered in their defiance, as their late attempt to sign Monaco's Thomas Lemar as Sanchez's replacement shows.
Before then, a swap with Sterling had been mooted and the word from City was that Arsenal proposed it and they rejected it. Certainly Arsene Wenger had an interest in the Englishman when he left Liverpool in 2015. It might have been a good financial deal, receiving an asset while losing one. It might have looked another footballing downgrade for a club accustomed to selling its best players.
If Arsenal had the PR triumph of keeping Sanchez, City are prospering on the pitch. Brilliant as the Chilean is, it would have been impossible to do better with him: they have not dropped a point since the transfer window closed. But it is tempting to consider the implications had he joined.
Assuming Sterling had stayed, it is logical to assume his game time would have been more limited; he surely would not be one of the four most prolific players in the league. Leroy Sane, averaging a goal or an assist at the ridiculous rate of every 53 minutes, might have spent longer on the bench. So, too, Aguero if Guardiola had both Sanchez and Gabriel Jesus from his template of more selfless, ultra-mobile winger/strikers. Bernardo Silva, the least used of the five forwards, could have been marginalised.
Everyone else in the division's most potent attack could have suffered.
The alternative interpretation is to wonder how many more goals City would have scored with Sanchez. Sterling seems a triumph of Guardiola's coaching, marrying a wide starting position, to stretch defences, with a capacity to arrive in the penalty box to finish. But he lacks Sanchez's pedigree. He has never topped 11 goals in a club campaign whereas the older man scored 30 for Arsenal last season. Sterling is prolific, but not yet clinical; he has the lowest percentage of attempts on target of anyone with four or more league goals. An effort he bobbled wide against Wolves in the Carabao Cup last week showed the lack of conviction of an erratic finisher.
It was a constant refrain of first Manuel Pellegrini's and later Guardiola's that Sterling should score more goals. He is certainly doing that, but it raises the question if his current form represents an outlier or a transformation into a more regular presence on the scoresheet. He has a tendency to start seasons well, but his scoring form is not always sustained; he only struck four times last season after a December winner against Arsenal and just twice after Boxing Day the previous year.Sterling feels an improving player, Guardiola polishing the rough edges off a diamond. A perhaps jaundiced view is to ponder if he would have kicked on at the same rate in London; many a British talent has stagnated at the Emirates Stadium. Perhaps Sterling could have been Theo Walcott 2.0, forever representing a case of unrealised potential.
Instead he is mixing it with the professional goalscorers and being celebrated by the City support. "Raheem Sterling, he's top of the league," goes an increasingly regular refrain of theirs. His role in taking City to the summit illustrates that Guardiola did not really need Sanchez. He just wanted him.

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