Raheem Sterling is still just 24 years old, but the fact that he made his debut seven years ago and has won 47 caps for England means his relative youth is obscured.
The Manchester City forward has been performing at the top level and with such consistency for so long that his influence has been underrated. That might no longer be the case.
Sterling’s hat-trick in City’s 3-1 win over Watford on Saturday ensured his side stayed top of the Premier League and meant all eyes were on him – even if the post-match discussion was dominated by the build-up to his opening strike.
He was the beneficiary of Paul Tierney’s mistake – with the referee incorrectly overruling his assistant’s original decision of offside – but the significance of his 13-minute glut of goals underlined just how important Sterling has become for his club.
Such is his form that Virgil van Dijk, who is leading the charge for City’s title rivals Liverpool, is the only man ahead of Sterling in the bookmakers’ odds to be named PFA player of the year.
The statistics back up the ranking. Sterling’s quick-fire treble at the Etihad Stadium saw him move level with team-mate Sergio Aguero, Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard as the most productive player in the Premier League this season.
His 15 goals and nine assists puts him on 24 goal contributions after 30 games, which stack up nicely alongside Aguero’s 18 goals and six assists, Salah’s 17 goals and seven assists and Hazard’s rounded output of 13 goals and 11 assists.
The company his keeps means he’s ahead of Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Tottenham’s Harry Kane – both 17 goals, four assists – and Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, who has scored 11 goals and provided nine assists.
Sterling’s form is no flash in the pan either – it’s a continuation of a sustained run of excellence. Since August 2017 only last year’s player of the year Salah, with 49 goals and 17 assists, has contributed to more goals in the Premier League than Sterling, who with 33 goals and 20 assists is currently level with his England team-mate Kane's 47 goals, six assists.
Having made sure of a 24th league win of the season for City, Sterling was substituted in the 64th minute against Watford at the weekend. This detail might seem to be of little consequence, but it was an indication of his standing; with his work done, Pep Guardiola was keen to rest his most important attacker.
Sterling may be a part of one of the most expensively-assembled sides in history and may take the pitch every game alongside an excess of talent, but he is now the star attraction. Considering the competition for his place in the team, he has needed to be.
In David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane, Riyad Mahrez, Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden, City have an array of viable options ready to replace him. They are also managed by Guardiola – a man well versed in the benefits of squad rotation.
However, so far this season only three City outfield players – Aymeric Laporte, Fernandinho and Bernardo Silva – have spent more minutes on the pitch in the Premier League than Sterling. The man who made a high-profile £49m move from Liverpool in July 2015 at the express wish of Guardiola has now established himself as the City boss’s go-to guy – not that the Catalan coach wants to take credit.
“I would say thanks to me but I don’t believe that. All the credit is for him,” he said yesterday. “We try to help the players. Sometimes it happens, sometimes not. Sometimes they realise now, sometimes in the next 10 years. It depends on their own qualities. We always overestimate what the manager does – in the end it is less than we expect.”
Ever since he made his Liverpool debut aged 17, Sterling has possessed the raw ability to succeed. His pace, confidence on the ball and knack of arriving in the box at the right time have defined his career, but it’s the way that he has adapted to Guardiola’s system that has taken him to another level.
The 24-year-old is fully in tune with his team-mates: he knows when to run in behind, when to drift inside and overload the defence, when to pull out wide to stretch the opposition and when to get on the end of his opposite winger’s low crosses.
It’s a positional intelligence which has turned him into a true all-rounder, although his three goals and 97 per cent pass accuracy against Watford still prompted pointers from his manager.
“He didn’t follow his full-back two times,” Guardiola explained. “He lost three or four balls and he has to avoid it because we conceded counter-attacks and many simple things. I am so glad he scored three goals but I think it is good for myself too that we can do better and I feel the first half was not the best.”
Having been rested for the final half hour, Sterling should be fresh for tomorrow's task against Schalke, where he’ll look to take Guardiola’s constructive criticism onboard.
Thankfully that task has already been made considerably easier by his actions in the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie. It was his late burst of acceleration and finish which saw City run out 3-2 winners in Germany, despite a 68th-minute red card for Nicolas Otamendi.
Get the job done tomorrow night in Manchester and Sterling and City’s next frontier will await.