The best goal from Raheem Sterling’s 11-minute hat trick against Atalanta was the second. It showcased all of his recent improvements that have turned him into one of the best players in the world.
The sequence begins with Benjamin Mendy clipping a ball to the inside of the left wing. Sterling chests the pass down with his back to goal and a defender immediately behind him. He uses his small, strong frame to create a bubble around the ball, nullifying the length advantage that a larger defender would have. Then he lays the ball off for Phil Foden.
The goal comes as a result of a decision the defenders make the instant that Foden touches the ball. The defender that had been on Sterling decides to pursue the ball, which means that the fullback who had been with Foden has to pick up Sterling, who spins away and makes a run to the outside.
Sterling is already beyond the fullback, yet still onside, as İlkay Gündoğan receives a pass from Foden on the inside. As Gündoğan is about make his pass, Sergio Aguero, who is naturally the highest player forward, checks down as if he is going to receive the ball, forcing his own defender to step forward. The fullback who is going with Sterling also pinches in to double Aguero.
But Gündoğan doesn’t go to Aguero. He bypasses the Argentine and finds Sterling all alone on the run. Sterling drives inside the box, and with the fullback trying to recover and slowing down to engage, he cuts inside and forces the defender off-balance. Then he blasts the ball into the back of the net.
It’s sometimes stunning to watch Sterling and realize how good he is now. The hat trick against Atalanta gives him 12 goals in 13 appearances for Manchester City this season. But more impressive than the numbers is the way he plays, which is a consequence of refinement in his style.
Sterling was a great talent to begin with. At the age of 20 he was an important player for a title-challenging Liverpool team. But there was a time — in 2015, after he was sold to City — when people who are supposed to be smart declared that he was not worth the price that City paid Liverpool. Some of the opposition to Sterling’s potential were manufactured attacks against him for wanting to leave Liverpool, but some people believed, for example, that Jordon Ibe would be better than Sterling in the long run.
The problem with grand declarations about young players — about what they will be and the limits of their talent, especially when one’s views are tinged with personal disdain — is that they assume a static future. So many conditions beyond talent go into success that predicting what a player will or won’t become is only a great way to set yourself up for embarrassment.
Back then, Sterling’s raw qualities were evident. He was fast, he could dribble, and he knew how to get himself into good positions, among other things. His flaws were clear too, like his weird inability to strike a ball well and frustrating lack of composure.
At Liverpool, he was on the road to becoming a great player, and there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t have developed well there. But at City, with Pep Guardiola, he has become a stunning player. Not only has he retained all of his strengths, but he reads the game and works so well off-the-ball that he’s a danger at all times.
His second goal may have been his best, but all of them displayed Sterling’s intelligence and awareness. In the build-up to the first goal, he sprints half the field to get into position as Kevin de Bruyne gets into the box. As the pass is about to go to Foden in the center of the box, Sterling stops completely, and backpedals to get into a better position as all of the defenders in the box focus on the ball. Had Sterling not taken a hard step back before Foden received the ball, he would have been too square to strike the ball properly. Many players often make that mistake, leaving them to take an off-balance swipe at the ball. But Sterling is savvy, and gives Foden space to put the ball in front of him to run on to.
The third also came from Sterling working off the ball and abusing a defender who loses sight of him. As the ball is going out to Riyad Mahrez on the right wing, Sterling shuffles to the left, just outside the vision of the fullback who was watching him. With the defender now looking to Mahrez, Sterling makes a run to the inside, and by the time that defender sees Sterling in front of him, it’s too late. He can’t keep up with Sterling, much less stop him without conceding a penalty. The pass comes in from Mahrez and Sterling finishes with a delicate touch, the type of finish that seemed beyond him just a few years ago when he was missing sitters.
Sterling is a fascinating player because for so long, he was burdened by stories that had little to do with his on-field play. Or rather, his on-field play was interpreted through those stories. He was the public enemy of Liverpool fans, and then the UK tabloids, and throughout the ordeal, it seemed like the player on the field was frozen in time because of the ideas being spread about him.
But he wasn’t stagnant. Throughout that era of nonsense, he improved greatly. He went from a special talent to a genuinely world-class player in a short amount of time. He didn’t rot on the City bench as some had predicted he would, but became indispensable. He went from a player who often needed to be on the ball to do his damage, to one who can beat defenders in such a myriad of ways that it’s often a matter of when he will score now, not if.
The easy and wonderfully petty thing would be to put those original doubters on blast now that Sterling has become what they declared he would never become, but it’s much more fun to delight in how incredible he is. As should be the norm with young players.
Now, away from those overwhelming narratives, Sterling is legitimately one of the best players in the world. And football is so much better for it.