Raheem Sterling adds improvised flourish to Pep Guardiola’s solid lines | Barney Ronay

Barney Ronay at the Etihad Stadium
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Raheem Sterling controls the ball during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images</span>
Raheem Sterling controls the ball during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

At one point during Manchester City’s early-season training Pep Guardiola became so frustrated by Raheem Sterling’s puppyish eagerness to cut inside and join the crowd, thereby messing with his precision fine-tuning, he drew a chalk spot on the right wing of City’s training pitch and told Sterling to stand there. When in doubt to seek the chalk spot.

Watching this wild, brilliantly entertaining Premier League game, reduced at times to a selection of bruising collisions around the centre circle, you feared for Pep’s chalk spot. Sterling did stay wide, but also found himself snared into the crush of bodies like pretty much every other player on the pitch. Guardiola raged and whirled and steadily shed his insulated layers on the touchline, a man by turns appalled and consumed by the wonderful mess of a high-class football match in front of him.

This was as ever a major occasion for Sterling, who started on the right against his former club. He played quite well too, producing a genuinely gripping exhibition of almost-but not‑quite, of speed and skill and purpose that never quite seemed to be directed with just the right degree of precision. Welcome to the Premier League, Pep old boy. Land of disappointed Champions League knockout stage patsies. A place of trapped energies and lost shapes, where nobody stays on the chalk spot.

At times in the first half here Sterling looked like a man doing an extremely convincing impression of a very good footballer. On at least three occasions he cut inside and beat two or three Liverpool defenders via a bespoke combination of close control, strength and crash-tackle bloody-mindedness. His movement off the ball left James Milner chugging about like a tugboat with a broken rudder. Power, flicks, turns, heart. Sterling has it all right now, just somehow not quite in the right order, or with enough of a fine edge.

Sterling complained he wasn’t coached enough under Manuel Pellegrini. Under Guardiola he has been given freedom to use his strengths, that powerful upright running style, high-spec acceleration. Goals, assists and outstanding performances have come in a drip not a gush. But he has stuck at it, as he did here on a damp, chilly Manchester spring day – otherwise known as a Manchester spring day – that turned the Etihad turf a deep sodden lime green. Sterling started on the far right of the front three, in direct confrontation with fellow old boy Milner. In the opening seconds he did exactly what his manager would want, running straight at his full-back as the away end produced its first deep rumbling, rolling boo of the afternoon. With 14 minutes gone there was a beautiful long-range one-two with David Silva, Sterling sprinting down his flank to take a return pass so brilliantly weighted and threaded it only emphasised the crushing mundanity of his own cross-by-numbers towards where Sergio Agüero might have been.

Leroy Sané was sent scampering in on goal by Sterling’s pass, the ball laid back eventually to David Silva, who spanked a shot just over. The word “eventually” was the key here: Sterling’s pass had sent Sané just too wide. Moments later Sterling almost got on the end of Sané’s fizzed low cross, but hung back just at the wrong moment. Decisions, decisions. With 39 minutes gone the key moment of the half arrived, Sterling failing to make contact with Silva’s low cross with the goal not so much gaping as splayed. Replays suggested Sterling had been fouled, Milner clipping his right foot as he drew back to shoot. It was hard to blame the referee in the confusion. It was also hard to avoid the feeling that man, opponent and ball should all have ended up in the net, tugs and trips be damned.

By half-time Sterling had dribbled five times, been caught offside four times and completed just 10 passes, a startling stat given his very visible involvement almost every time City went forward. But then, even in a mud-wrestle such as this, precision is everything.

Roberto Firmino was Sterling’s de facto replacement at Liverpool. He did little here but created the opening goal at the start of the second half, making just the right run at the right moment to wrongfoot Gaël Clichy and draw a clumsy foul. Milner, who might have been sent off for that foul on Sterling, stuck the penalty away beautifully.

It was notable how the balance changed on City’s right as Kevin De Bruyne switched to that side. De Bruyne is a different kind of attacker, a man who plays cold, able to choose and execute the right pass at high speed, those laser-guided pings and nudges. His low cross from Sterling’s flank made the equalising goal Agüero clipped delightfully into the far corner.

Sterling kept going to the end, still making runs, still whirling into space, just somehow always looking like a man with half the script memorised.

Precision may come in time. Here he was still a brilliantly entertaining spectacle in his own right on a day when the wildness and the vagaries of the Premier League whirl were as vivid as ever.

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