Raheem Sterling might be the most demonised player in the Premier League.
The 22-year-old must sit and wonder why he receives such heavy scrutiny both on and off the pitch, especially given the free passes afforded to fellow fledgling stars like Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford, and it’s no secret he’s endured a rough ride since joining Manchester City.
From the bizarre nationwide booing following his £44million move from Liverpool in 2015, to the vitriolic criticism after Euro 2016, there’s been a strange desire from those outside of the Etihad Stadium to see him fail.
But amid all the bluster Sterling has thundered on, maturing into a key asset under Pep Guardiola to drown out the roar of disapproval.
And while it seems the England international must do more than most to earn appreciation, the winger is certainly making it difficult to ignore his obvious quality.
Granted, Guardiola deserves a nod of acknowledgement for Sterling’s vast improvement over the last 12 months but his progression stretches beyond just the Catalan.
Here, we analyse four reasons for his development into one of English football’s finest wingers.
BETTER END PRODUCT
According to Whoscored.com, only Cristiano Ronaldo (five) has scored in more Champions League matches than Sterling (four in four).
His goals have earned City nine points across the Premier League and in Europe – four more than any team-mate – and Guardiola’s reluctance to see him depart for Arsenal in the summer has been more than justified.
Seldom confident in front of goal, his lack of conviction was a huge stick to beat him with and while improvements can still be made, his deft winner against Feyenoord wasn’t a finish in isolation.
Indeed, he’s scored seven times in the league this season, equalling his tally for last term and two short of his best record while with Liverpool during the 2013/14 season.
His first-time finish from Kyle Walker’s cross against West Brom was the difference between a draw and a win while his goals against Napoli, Bournemouth and Everton were also pivotal.
From 47 games in the previous two seasons he managed 11 and 10 goals across all competitions – this term he’s already reached 11 and is comfortably on course for his most prolific campaign to date.
Sterling’s ability to find the target more accurately is leaving his critics short of ammunition.
A shift in attitude hasn’t just come in the form of confidence in front of goal.
Indeed, his tireless workrate has been married to a desire to get on the ball more often and rather than wait for things to happen, he is making it happen.
In the past Sterling could be accused of shirking responsibility by marooning himself on the touchline. While a small sample size, the Feyenoord game can be used as a prime example of his desire to get more involved.
He had 70 touches on Tuesday, made the second most key passes (3) and had the most shots on target (2).
Even though Guardiola likes to rotate his attackers, Sterling has come in and taken his opportunities.
Last season, the winger had a habit of over complicating things but now the self-belief has given him the confidence to both create and score chances.
The game is full of various personalities and it’s probably not inaccurate to say Sterling needs a level of comfort to bring out his best.
Without the cauldron of boos, a healthy mindset is allowing Sterling to flourish.
Raheem Sterling celebrates scoring against Feyenoord
For all of his doubters there has been one man to retain faith in Sterling.
From phoning to offer support after a torrid Euro 2016 before they’d even met to the utter rejection of Arsenal’s summer approach, Pep Guardiola has always made clear how important Sterling is.
“They talked to me and I said: ‘No chance. Zero chance. Not one per cent chance we will swap Raz because I trust a lot in him’,” the Catalan said of the Gunners advance.
And the trust is mutual. A video from pre-season went viral in the aftermath of City’s win on Tuesday as it showed Guardiola altering Sterling’s body position in one-two situations.
The former Barcelona boss could be seen clearly instructing Sterling to open up his body more and it was the exact situation which led to the crucial winner.
His philosophy of ensuring players are always aware and using the correct body positioning has evidently had a profound effect on Sterling.
And this level of coaching has taken players like the England man onto a new level.
For all the touts of him being a “chequebook” manager it’s impossible to deny Guardiola’s ability to bring the best out of the players at his disposal and for that he deserves immense credit.
The unwavering support of Guardiola is emphatically paying off but another element of his success has been a change of style brought on by the fixes at full-back.
Like his youthful twin of destruction on the left, Leroy Sane and Sterling have both benefited from the injection of pace in City’s key defensive positions.
The aging legs of Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna have been replaced by the exuberance of Kyle Walker, Fabian Delph and Danilo with Benjamin Mendy also in the mix when he returns from injury.
Their ability to get up and down has allowed Sterling to pop up in the box more often. His goals have largely come from his clever runs into the back post and the greater intensity from overlapping full-backs has allowed him to come in from the wing with greater urgency.
He’s getting more goals than assists and this newfound freedom is helping both the wingers and the team to function much better.
And as mentioned above, when Sterling is in threatening positions he’s making it count whether it be from a confident attitude, the Guardiola effect or from the altered style.
Sterling and Sane are both profiting from better full-backs