All football managers have their critics. Not even Pep Guardiola, who has achieved so many great feats during his managerial career, is spared.
One of the biggest gripes held against the Catalan is that he only ever works with the best of the best - Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Dani Alves at Barcelona; Phillip Lahm, Manuel Neuer and Robert Lewandowski at Bayern Munich; David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne at Manchester City.
But these detractors often tend to overlook the minute details in his tactics, the unmatched style and substance of his teams and how he works extremely hard on the training ground to ensure that his players share his vision and get a clear picture of what he wants them to do on the field.
One only needs to look at Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling to gauge the impact of Guardiola’s coaching.
Sterling, a graduate of the Liverpool academy, had long been hailed as a player with immense potential. When he broke into the first-team at Anfield, he was an exciting prospect tipped for a bright future.
And when he moved to Manchester City in a £49million deal in 2015, when Manuel Pellegrini was still in charge at the club, he was hailed as a player with great promise, but with flaws in his game; an unfinished product.
Both at Liverpool and in his early days at Manchester City, Sterling lacked the killer instinct in his game, while his finishing abilities were not up to the mark either. Search for Sterling misses on YouTube, and you are likely to find countless videos.
On numerous occasions, his big-game mentality had also been questioned. But all that has changed now. Sterling, now, is one of the first names on the team sheet at Manchester City and the England national team. And a lot of that has to do with Guardiola’s coaching and how he has managed to extract the best out of the speedy winger.
When Guardiola arrived at Manchester City, Sterling wasn’t in the best of shapes confidence-wise. The expectations of the price tag and an ordinary debut season had begun to take its toll on the young sensation.
“Obviously, he has a little bit of problem with the £49million they (Manchester City) paid, in the mind of the people,” Guardiola had said at the time.
Another issue that Guardiola pointed out with Sterling’s game early in his spell at Manchester City was that the Englishman didn’t seem to care how many goals he scored. As things stand, go back to October last year when Manchester City thrashed Atalanta in the Champions League, with Sterling getting a memorable hat-trick. Post the match, Sterling said “I should have had four.”
This change in mentality brought about by Guardiola and his team has been critical to Sterling’s rise to the top of the pile.
In terms of his game, there haven’t been any drastic changes. But just a minute tweak, wherein Guardiola encouraged him to play closer to the penalty box, rather than hugging the touchline like a natural winger does. Something that he had never done at Liverpool nor in his first season at Manchester City.
Sterling hardly scores worldies. Most of his goals come from in and around the six-yard mark when he gets on the end of passes from his teammates from the wide areas. These poacher-like instincts have been brought about by the manager’s encouragement to attack the box relentlessly.
When one sees footages of Sterling at City under Guardiola, it can be observed that the Englishman always plays on the ‘half-turn’ and when the ball arrives towards him, instead of stopping it, he pushes it past his marker and lets his pace do the rest. This is another tweak, not a great change, but a minute adjustment, that has reaped great rewards for Sterling.
Speaking in numbers, Sterling’s best-ever goal tally in the Premier League during his time at Liverpool was the nine goals he scored during the 2013/14 campaign. In his debut season with Manchester City, he managed six league goals.
Fast forward to the 2017/18 season, Guardiola’s second season at the club, Sterling plundered 18 goals and set up 15 more as City won the title. Last season, the 25-year-old bagged 17 goals and created 12 more as the Citizens bagged the title again. In 24 matches this term, he has 11 goals already and that tally should increase should the Premier League season returns at some point.
From a speedy, fleet-footed young footballer with promise, to one of the most devastating ‘goalscoring wingers’ in the game, Sterling’s rise in recent years has been nothing short of brilliant. And the influence of Guardiola on this journey cannot be overstated.
The man himself though, credits his protégé for all the success. “All the credit is for him. He is an extraordinary player,” Guardiola had said after that spectacular hat-trick against Atalanta.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Oli Scarff