How Pep Guardiola placed Raheem Sterling at the forefront of a tactical revolution

There is no purer example of Guardiola’s ability to transform players. From Xavi to Ilkay Gundogan, Sergio Aguero to Thomas Muller, Sterling to Lionel Messi, a raft of players have been transformed under his management

Pep Guardiola assess how his side can succeed in the Champions League

There is a glass box in Nadine Sterling’s house in Jamaica that is getting rapidly fuller. Her son, Raheem, has taken to sending match balls across the Atlantic every time he scores three goals. “I’ve bought an extra six cases just in case I do score a hat-trick,” he said.

Six may have seemed a surfeit for a man who began March with just one to his name in senior football. Four more have followed for club and country since then. At this rate, Sterling may have to consider buying in bulk. His second hat-trick of the campaign was his first in the Champions League. Atalanta, leading 1-0 until Sterling intervened, left the Etihad Stadium eviscerated 5-1. He had made two, scored three. An 11-minute treble was his quickest and, given the stage, perhaps his most prestigious.

There is no purer example of Pep Guardiola’s ability to transform players. From Xavi to Ilkay Gundogan, Sergio Aguero to Thomas Muller, Sterling to Lionel Messi, a raft of players have registered the most productive season of their career under the Catalan. Where Sterling is in still more rarefied company is that he keeps doing it: 23 in 2017-18, 25 in 2018-19, 12 already for City this year. For club and country, he has 16 in 17 matches. It used to be the mark of a top striker to average a goal every other game. Sterling is the winger almost averaging one per match. City have 212 since the start of last season.

The goalscoring winger feels a very modern phenomenon, the poacher who deserts the touchline to head for the six-yard box, but Sterling is in the vanguard of a revolution. “He can play on both sides,” said Guardiola, but stationing him on the left allows him to come infield and score with his right foot, as he did three times. “He is fast.” It is something the beaten Atalanta manager, Gian Piero Gasperini, noted, deflecting questions if City are better than Serie A’s serial champions Juventus but talking of their greater pace. It is speed allied with relentlessness. Sterling personifies it. “The day after a game he could play another,” Guardiola said.

Sterling showed a different kind of relentlessness. An hour after the final whistle, he was branding it a “perfect night”. His immediate reaction, however, was: “I should have had four.” The one that got away, the missed chance when he rolled a shot wide, still occupied his thoughts even though City were 5-1 up at the time. “I’ve got to finish that one,” he reflected. His team-mates shared those sentiments. As he left the pitch, Riyad Mahrez was raising four fingers to indicate his possible haul.

The hat-trick hero, Guardiola and John Stones used the same words – tough, difficult – but there was a sense that Atalanta made it easy for Sterling. A player with his acceleration enjoys a high defensive line. One as irrepressible and irresistible could capitalise when the visitors looked to go man for man; pity the poor individual – Rafael Toloi, in this instance – tasked with policing Sterling.

The key to his transformation from occasional to invariable scorer is that his goals are not spectacular. The most flamboyant thing he has done this week was the delightful scooped assist for David Silva’s opener at Crystal Palace. Sterling is not relying on 25 wonder goals a season. There is a simplicity to scoring, an Aguero-esque element, and not just the precision required for his second goal. That came from 12 yards, his first and third from around six each. He is the poacher in the guise of a flair player.

“All the credit is for him,” said Guardiola. It has become a mantra for him that Sterling deserves the praise for his evolution.

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