Raheem Sterling was not a headlining part of Manchester City’s comprehensive win over Chelsea yesterday afternoon and neither did he produce any truly game-defining moments.
That was to be expected. Sterling is only weeks into life at his new club and the value of his move will be determined over the coming months and years rather than during these first few weeks.
Still, even if he didn’t have much of a hand in deciding the literal outcome of the game, it was interesting to note how much benefit City derived just from having him on the pitch. Sterling didn’t play badly and he did roast Branislav Ivanovic down the left side a couple of times, but more valuable to his manager was probably the theoretical threat he posed and the space created by his selection.
Two graphics - each courtesy of Squawka - showing (first) Manchester City’s cumulative touches in against Chelsea at The Etihad last year and (second) the equivalent from yesterday:
There’s a caveat, in that Manchester City played in a 4-4-2 last year and 4-2-3-1 yesterday, but the disparity between the two graphics is still relevant: the level of penetration down the Chelsea right was far greater.
Raheem Sterling is already a fairly complete player and, other than his erratic finishing, there’s very little that he doesn’t do well. He’s good enough on the ball to cut-infield and be a menace in congested space, but also quick enough to take a full-back on down the outside. In other words, he’s a duel-threat who asks more questions of an opponent than any other player who Manchester City have used in that area in recent seasons.
Two more graphics (from WhoScored.com):
The above shows the average position of Chelsea’s players last year (top) and this year (bottom). Note the differences in position of Branislav Ivanovic, who was both wider and deeper yesterday than he was in September 2014.
Now compare the average positions of the Manchester City players - again, the top is 2014/15, the bottom 2015/16.
It’s vastly different. Not only did Manuel Pellegrini have genuine two-player width down the left-hand side through Aleksandar Kolarov and Raheem Sterling, but also a far healthier spread to his attacking components in general - meaning that the Chelsea defence, who typically prefer to usher their opponents from outside to in, were stretched far wider than they were eleven months ago.
And, obviously, the more distance a back-four is forced to cover, the more space they ultimately give up. Sterling was actually tactically very disciplined yesterday and every time City retrieved the ball or moved over the half-way line, he could be seen shuffling reliably out to the touchline to accentuate that width.
David Silva enjoyed a very good game yesterday, Jesus Navas was periodically influential, and Sergio Aguero looked constantly dangerous. In each case, the player’s relevance was due not only to his own high level of performance, but also to the gaps that the overall system created.
City’s movement was better yesterday than it had been against Chelsea previously, and their use of the ball was quicker and more imaginative. Yes, that’s because many of their individuals were performing at a higher level, but it was also because the threat they presented was more diverse and their range of offensive opportunity was more eclectic.
That is - and has always been - the way to judge the Sterling transfer: not “what is he as an individual”, but “how much harder does he make it for teams to defend against Manchester City”.
Not only does his speed and ability to lead swift counter-attacking moves force opponents to reconsider how they attack Pellegrini’s team, but the danger he represents in one-on-one situations invariably draws more than one defender to him at a time, with the subsequent effect of creating space elsewhere.
In an inferior team that would be less of a concern, but in a side containing Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Yaya Toure, it’s an enormous problem - almost an unsolvable one.
Subsequently, even when Sterling doesn’t perform to the extent of his ability he is still a significant asset. He could stand on the left touchline, not touch the ball all game, and the lingering threat of what he might do would still cause a problem.
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