Raheem Sterling is a gem. He has been one of the best wide attackers in the Premier League for about five years now, boasts an athleticism and technical ability and intelligence that makes 99 percent of his peers look like stodgy goons by comparison, regularly heaps on goals and assists at a much quicker rate than players widely considered to be his betters, is (or should be) considered one of the two or three most gifted talents the great and proud soccer nation England has produced in years, currently stands as one of the critical cogs in a Manchester City squad that is threatening to become the iconic EPL team of this generation, and at only 22 years old, still has so much room to grow into an even bigger star than he already is.
And yet despite all of these facts, Sterling is criminally underrated, considered by many to be if not quite a bust then at least a vague disappointment on what was once world-class potential. Thankfully, Sterling’s play as of late has been so spectacular that he’s making the dumb and erroneous rap against him look as stupid as it has always been.
Manchester City’s Champions League opponents Napoli were the latest victims of Sterling’s recent surge, but they are far from the only squad to have been recently sliced up by him. The way Sterling played against the Italians—a goal, three chances created, eight completed dribbles out of 10 attempts, and regularly finding himself at the heart of everything good City were doing in their 4-2 away win—was indicative of the cool-headed but deadly style that makes him so effective.
Sterling’s most lethal weapon is and has always been his ability to run with the ball. Like most tricky dribblers, he has great acceleration and really good top-end speed, which combine to make him nearly uncatchable in open space. Where he really shines with the ball at his feet, though, is in close quarters. He has this herky-jerky, slow-it-down, speed-it-up style he switches to when the space gets tight that gives defenders nightmares. It’s like a dance party where the DJ drops MF Doom’s “Tick, Tick...” and he’s the only one who can move with the shifting rhythm without tripping over himself. And the way that Sterling can attack the box from literally any angle from the left, right, or center of the pitch gives him an unpredictability and versatility that only the most elite attackers can match.
Take his teammate and brother in youthful excellence, Leroy Sané, for example. While Sané has taken to his left wing position more adeptly than most would’ve imagined, you can still see how limited he is when trying to make something happen when he finds himself out wide on the left. Because he is so left foot-dominant and can only really run at defenders when angling his body towards his left, he sometimes struggles to get himself into the most dangerous areas of the penalty box since he can’t, say, chop inside from the left wing and get himself into a more centralized area. Sterling, in contrast, has no problem moving to his left or right no matter where he is on the pitch, which allows him to be just as effective playing anywhere along the attacking lines. He’s a threat to shoot or pass or cut inside or outside no matter where he’s at, and that is what makes him so dangerous regardless of where he picks up the ball.
And that’s not the only aspect of his dribbling technique that makes him so great. Everything Sterling does on the field is performed with an uncommon patience. When he charges into a pack of defenders, he doesn’t come bulldozing in and try to hack his way through with sheer force and a trick or two. Rather, Sterling sort of splays his legs out wide, keeping the ball in the middle of his feet in a crab-like stance, and waits for defenders to commit themselves. He’ll feint this way and that, slide back and forth with his herks and his jerks, but he won’t burst forward and past the defenders until a clear path reveals itself. It makes his dribbling that much more effective since he almost always knows he’s in the clear once he makes his move.
In fact, that same calm intelligence he uses to wait for the perfect moment to blow by opponents is what makes the rest of his game so effective. Though Sterling is an incredibly gifted athlete, it’s his brain and his eyes more than his legs that make him more than a one-trick dribbler. Although Sterling racks up tons of goals and assists every year (in the four EPL seasons prior to this one, he’s averaged a little over 12 combined goals and assists; this season, he’s already tallied nine goal contributions in just eight appearances, including seven goals of his own, which is one less than the league’s highest scorer, Harry Kane), he doesn’t look like your prototypical goals and assists man. His ball-striking is frankly awful; every time he winds up his labored shooting motion, he looks like he’s about to mis-hit the thing, and the majority of his goals are squibbed rollers. Similarly, he’s not really one for fancy through balls or circus passes that knife between a handful of defenders and send his teammates clear through on goal.
Instead, Sterling relies on his ability to wait for the right moment to release the ball, biding his time until an opening presents itself, and then either skids the ball toward the net or slides it to an open teammate. And he’s so smart on the ball and off of it that he always manages to be in the right place and makes the right choice with the ball when he does get it. His game isn’t one of high-difficulty golazos or jaw-dropping outside-of-the-boot passes; it’s a game founded on the patience to wait for a simple option to appear and the talent to then take advantage of it. He doesn’t set the rhythm of a match, but he dances along in perfect time with the one that is presented to him. It’s a subtler, headier game than he gets credit for playing, and it will serve him well for years and years to come.
That said, if Sterling’s seven goals so far this season are anything to go off of, he appears to be improving on his relative weaknesses, too. If he continues sharpening his shooting and incisive passing skills, there’s no reason why he couldn’t become one of the best attackers in the sport.
In light of all these skills and production and potential, how can a player who’s been this good for so long, who’s currently one goal behind the league’s scoring leader, who’s a legitimate star on the best team in the most famous league, and who’s still frighteningly young and only getting better manage to be underrated? Expectations more than anything else. Because Sterling exploded onto the scene as a 17-year-old phenom, people just expected him to become a superstar overnight. Even though he was still putting together some of the most impressive seasons any teenager has ever managed, because he wasn’t scoring a goal every game by the time he was 20, it was far too easy to take his talent for granted. And that’s before touching on the gross, unquestionably racially tinged media coverage he’s endured as the British press scours his personal life for any justification to paint him as a lazy, ungrateful punk on the path of throwing away his career. (Spoiler alert: This wildly rich young man likes to buy nice things for himself and his family. Scandal!)
This is self-evidently bullshit. Sterling has been nothing but a model professional his whole career, rightfully forcing his way out at Liverpool after they wouldn’t pay him what he knew he was worth and could get elsewhere. He has never regressed as a player and in fact continues to get better and better, even if this is less visible on a team of international superstars like the ones Man City employ. He is, alongside Dele Alli and Harry Kane, a core part of what could easily become the first truly elite England national team in ages. He is already one of the best 10 or 15 right wingers in the world, and he’s still only 22 goddamn years old.
Raheem Sterling is the truth. And it’s great that no one can say otherwise any longer.