The thing about Manchester City is that they don’t really have a best player. Well, they do have one—Kevin de Bruyne—but the team’s structure isn’t the sort where everything revolves around one guy, where shutting KDB down means shutting down the entire team. Instead, Man City possess a truly stupid number of exceptional players, any of whom on a given day could be the headsman at your team’s execution.
While the team truly is the star of the show, it’s always nice when one of the handful of its best players gets his turn with the axe. On Tuesday, as it so often is, that player was Raheem Sterling.
It was tough at first, but after going down 0–1 early on, City eventually turned things around against Atalanta in the Champions yesterday and came away with the lopsided (5–1) win most expected. The result was down almost entirely to Sterling.
The Englishman played a direct hand in all five of the Citizens’ goals, setting up Sergio Agüero’s leveler with a brilliant chipped pass, gifting the Argentine a second by winning a penalty, and in a blistering 11-minute stretch in the second half, scoring a hat trick of his own that turned a tense game into a laugher. It was as close as you can come to a legitimately perfect game.
Sterling has a preposterous number of skills. He’s fast, strong, great on or off the ball, great on the left or on the right, great hugging the touchline or playing inside, can make any pass, and can score many different kinds of goals. Lots of players can do one or two of the things Sterling did on City’s five goals against Atalanta, but only a tiny number can do all of them.
One of the most remarkable things about Sterling is just how damn smart he is. His decision-making is incredible. He always knows exactly where to be on the pitch, whether to go toward or away from the ball, when to accelerate play and when to slow things down. That intelligence is behind much of his versatility, and it’s why he’s only continuing to get better and better.
Sterling is 24 years old and is playing the best soccer of his life. As much as City would love to three-peat as English champions this season, their real task is to finally translate their domestic dominance onto the European stage. Can Sterling be the focal point of a Champions League–winning team? The good news is he doesn’t have to be, since City have so many match-winners—Sterling and de Bruyne and Bernardo and Agüero and David Silva and Leroy Sané (if he gets healthy in time)—that they don’t need to rely on just one. But the better news is, in light of his steady ascent over the past three seasons and his performance on Tuesday, when the moment arises, Sterling is more than capable of being the guy who wins big games practically all by himself.