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Leap Year: Raheem Sterling Has Joined the Premier League Elite

No one player epitomizes the dazzling athleticism, savvy decision-making, and ruthlessness of this Manchester City season like its young star winger  

Raheem Sterling spreading his arms Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Right now, Manchester City are five points clear with a game in hand at the top of the Premier League table, which is not a thing that should happen in November. This is thanks to their hard-hearted finishing and reality-distorting possession magic. The rest of the notional Big Six seem rather small compared to Pep Guardiola’s team. In theory, one of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, [raises binoculars] or Tottenham, or Arsenal could close the gap, provided the planets align, and City have an injury crisis. But it’s unlikely. City are not competing with their contemporaries; they’re boxing with history.

In the opposing corner are the Invincibles—the 2003-04 Arsenal team that went 49 Premier League games unbeaten. You’re thinking it, too: City’s win at Huddersfield Town over the weekend makes 11 victories in a row for the Citizens, 37 points from 13 games, and the best start of any team since the Premier League’s inception. However, there’s a thing that keeps getting glossed over in the all the liturgy and doomsday prep: Manchester City have won 16 points so far this season in games where Raheem Sterling has scored in the last 10 minutes.

Where do we find those 16 points? Well, some of them are resting at Scott Malone’s feet, er, hands, for starters.

There was also the three points Sterling pulled out of a hat with a 97th-minute winner at Bournemouth. There’s the one point he rescued when he leveled City with Everton in the 82nd minute. There were another three when he felled Feyenoord with a discourteous chip in the 88th minute of a Champions League tie last week. And six more points came from late goals against Watford and Napoli. He’s made a habit out of slipping his big toe onto the scales of justice.

In August, after Sterling had nearly incited a riot at Bournemouth, Guardiola said that he’d like to instill his winger with a better “sense of the goal.” On Sunday, he said that Sterling was now a “winning player.” Sterling had a better designation for himself and the rest of his teammates: “killers.” “We wanted to get a goal as soon as possible, and the message was to get right at them, get in their area and try to pin them back, and that's what we did,” he told the Manchester Evening News. Even the way he talks is more decisive than it was, even a year ago. Although considering the way he wobbled in his match-winner on Sunday, I want to say “hunter-gatherer” might be more on the nose than “killer” for Sterling. But we’re splitting hairs.

Sky Sports analyst Thierry Henry, who was on that Invincibles Arsenal team and acknowledged that Sterling took the Huddersfield game “by the scruff of its neck,” also said that Sterling benefits a lot from structure. “He needs to know what he has to do, it’s as simple as that. He needs to know the plan, he needs to know the structure and he needs to know what his team are going to do so he can execute it.” Exactly. Here is a video of Pep teaching a man to fish so that the can feed himself for a lifetime.

All of this may smack of system player to you, and it’s fine that you hate wonderful and genuinely impressive things.

That said, what’s the point of even watching soccer if you can’t enjoy the rarities that boggle the mind? Speaking of which, can I interest you in a graph by Ted Knutson? All you really need to know is that an increase in plot area represents improvement and “blue” was last season—and that this means that Raheem Sterling is making the leap.

This must be dismaying for anyone who thought Sterling’s career stunk of curdling potential, or complained about him eating a sausage roll in his £500,000 Bentley, which was muddy. OK, fine, inhaling nitrous gas from balloons was on him. But how did you pass time when you were 19? (Don’t answer that.) By that point, Sterling was already one of the best young players in Europe, notching nine goals and five assists in Liverpool’s 2013-14 season. A lot of other players before him have buckled under these kinds of expectations. There’s hope for Jack Wilshere yet, and Daniel Sturridge is doing fine, but remember how David Bentley had “fallen out of love with the game” and retired before the age of 30?

Sterling was still young, and he was paid like it—€35,000 a week. But he wanted to be compensated for his talent, whatever his manager at the time, Brendan Rodgers, said. “[Liverpool are] certainly not a club that is going to give out way above what a player is worth at a certain time of his career,” Sterling said in an infamous interview with the BBC, and the relationship between club and player (and agent) fell apart.

City stepped into the breach, offering more money and a realistic shot at a Champions League trophy. He got the first, and eyeing the shape City are in—top of the table and their Champions League group, comfortably—the second could be on the way.

You might recall that Sterling’s transfer from Liverpool three seasons ago cost City only £44 million, which now looks like a steal, however expensive it seemed at the time. After he had an uneven 2016-17 season with City, there were some rumors that Sterling could be heading to Arsenal as a makeweight in a transfer deal for Alexis Sánchez at the beginning of this season. (Ignoring that there would’ve been virtually no reason for Pep to do that, since he can have Alexis this summer, for free.) Now he has more goals (12) than Sergio Agüero, whose whole thing is goalscoring, and only four fewer than Harry Kane, who is great but has far less sauce. Also, Kane is two years older. Sterling is young, improving, and already one of the best players on maybe the best team in Europe. There has to be a reason we’re not freaking out about this more.

It could just be his face, by Sterling’s admission. It could just be the wobbly way he runs, which I might describe as “Barry Allen breaking Mach 2 after his fourth helping of fried turkey.” But he’s still breaking Mach 2. It might also be his nagging reputation for seemingly doing less and less thinking the deeper into the final third he got. I think it’s safe to say that no longer applies. It’s amazing what can be accomplished with pulse jet speed and the presence of mind to open your stance when receiving a ball across your body. Apparently, that was the final bridge from “promising” to “cause of night terrors for 19 other Premier League managers.”

When he punted the ball into the stands at John Smith’s Stadium at full time on Sunday, Sterling was close enough to the booms near the hoarding for them to pick up a YEAAAAAAAH!!!! Raheem Sterling is the King of the Fourth. Quarter-hour. He’s remedied the foibles that gave him an air of incompleteness at Liverpool, and those of last season, in Manchester. Once a shiny thing that might be, he now is—playing for the apparent best team in Europe, where on any given day, he might be the best player. You are not excited enough.

An earlier version of this piece misstated the number of points Manchester City has earned in games in which Sterling has scored in the last 10 minutes and omitted his goals against Watford and Napoli.