Raheem Sterling's quantum leap: Why Manchester City man's superhero season should encourage Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford

 
Joe Hall
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Rarefied air: Raheem Sterling has joined the ranks of the elite (Source: Getty)

Raheem Sterling’s late winners against Feyenoord, Huddersfield and Southampton in Manchester City's last three games have underlined his remarkable evolution this season from talented but erratic forward to the elite team’s go-to man in the clutch.

It’s been quite a jump. If Sterling was the star in a superhero movie then the 2017-18 season would mark the dramatic point on his arc when, under the tutelage of a wizened sensei, the young apprentice finally learns to harness his otherworldly powers for a greater cause.

Pep Guardiola has an unrivalled team of footballing Avengers at his disposal, yet the young Englishman is currently outshining them all.

After 19 games in all competitions, Sterling tops City’s scoring charts with 13 goals. A Premier League haul of nine puts him ahead of leading top-flight marksmen Jamie Vardy, Romelu Lukaku, Alvaro Morata and Alexandre Lacazette. He is just one goal behind dual Golden Boot winner Harry Kane and two behind the division's current leading scorer Mohamed Salah.

Read more: Why Cesc Fabregas is once again pulling strings for Chelsea

Sterling is currently averaging 0.96 goals per 90 minutes in the Premier League – more than Kane’s 0.80. It is also a vast uplift on his 0.25 goals per 90 last year and his previous best of 0.36 goals per 90 for Liverpool in the 2013-14 season.

The highest scoring season of his career so far follows years of public questioning — not least from current manager Guardiola — about his output in the final third.

As recently as this summer it appeared that Sterling’s personal trajectory had taken a downturn following his £49m move from Liverpool in 2015.

Although strenuously denied by Guardiola, rumours that City were ready to offload Sterling in part-exchange for Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez did not appear far-fetched.

In the final months of the season the former QPR academy member was used inconsistently by City — and left on the bench entirely for their final two games — as two players his junior in Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus stole headlines.

For so long had the City forward been an established Premier League star — when he made his England debut David Beckham was still a year away from retirement, Sir Alex Ferguson was Manchester United manager and Conor McGregor was on the dole — it was easy to forget that, at just 22, his career was still in its infancy.

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Numbers on the board: Raheem Sterling is scoring at a faster rate than ever before (Source: Getty)

Speaking earlier this season about the former Liverpool player, Guardiola said Sterling “knows a striker has to score and he has to do that if he wants to take the next step”.

It’s not the first time a prodigious Premier League winger has been re-defined as a striker after a growth spurt in goals.

The comparison might sound overblown, but Cristiano Ronaldo spent a similar number of years on the outskirts of the top scorers' charts before making a quantum leap in 2007-08 season.

In previous campaigns Ronaldo averaged 0.23, 0.19, 0.35 and 0.54 goals per 90 minutes before rocketing to 1.02 after — like Sterling — turning 22.

Lionel Messi was the same age when he won his first Ballon d’Or after jumping from 0.44 goals per 90 to 0.82 in the 2008-09 season.

Read more: Trevor Steven on why Manchester City are the best team in Europe

Of course, a strong start to the season does not mean necessarily mean England and City are now set for a decade of Messi and Ronaldo style goal-hoarding from the blossoming forward.

Yet perhaps the real surprise should not have been Sterling’s season so far, but if he had never kicked on to this level at all.

In his first three seasons in which he made more than 10 appearances, Sterling averaged 0.22 goals per 90 and 0.50 goals and assists per 90. Ronaldo averaged 0.26 and 0.54 goals and assists per 90 in his equivalent years.

Player development rarely follows a straightforward path. The variables of body, conditioning and environment can all shape an individual player’s progression. Yet what we did know about Sterling was that his output as a youngster betrayed a prodigious talent that rivalled the best players in the world at the same age.

That’s why Sterling’s season should serve as encouragement for fans of Tottenham or Manchester United who may be allowing doubts to creep in about their own whizz-kids’ slight slumps in form after stunning starts to their Premier League careers.

Both Spurs' Dele Alli and United's Rashford are averaging lower goals and assists per 90 minutes than they produced in their breakthrough 2015-16 seasons.

Yet Alli is 21 and Rashford is 20. And with an average goals and assists per 90 of 0.62 and 0.58 so far in their careers, both are still outshining Sterling and Ronaldo at the same age.

Precedent suggests patience will pay off.

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