Michael Jordan loved to talk about the shots he missed in his career: nine thousand of them in total, and over time a constant source of ignition, fathers to all his other triumphs. You have failed. It doesn’t matter. Fail better. Or in this case, crush everyone in the planks in between.
Which is great, but it seems safe to say that none of those duds were free headers past Anfield Kop at 4:39 p.m. on a damp November Sunday afternoon, already 1-0, and with the obligation to get up. turn halfway by pretending not to hear 20,000 people offering gleefully adverse observations about your historic life choices.
Welcome to a day, a date, a year in the life of Raheem Sterling, for whom Manchester City against Liverpool remains a particular type of trauma. One of the weird pleasures of locked-out football is the constant surprise, in reruns or YouTube clips, at the power of a sports audience.
When Manchester City and Liverpool step out at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, it will be almost exactly one year to the day since last season’s reverse fixture, a 3-1 win at Liverpool that would actually clarify the trajectory of the Premier League title race. ; and a notable occasion mainly for the feverish mood of the stadium crowd.
It was football as a gutting public theater. For half an hour in Pep Guardiola, you could see mad antics on the sideline, arms outstretched like a demented frontier preacher, consumed by the weird shared energy of a stadium he had already started calling “this place”. Plus, of course, there was Sterling, for whom these encounters remain a flawless injury, even as she continues to face each other head-on.
Moments after that missed header, the game was almost decided by Liverpool’s wonderful second goal, an architectural three-point zig-zag from right-back to left-back to right-winger and then back with a zing in the top corner of the net. It was a moment that seemed to set up the rest of the afternoon as something of a standalone Sterling mini-drama.
There were crushed odds and provocative dribbles, played to a soundtrack of taunts and boos. Finally, there was the fight with Joe Gomez which would turn into canteen dust a few days later in England, a rapprochement with which the two men, despite all words of conciliation, will re-engage this weekend.
Sterling kept pushing forward that day, leading even when lost. Just as he will do on Sunday afternoon, installed in a period of withdrawal as the undisputed leader of the Guardiola attack.
It’s a role that City need him. There is a popular assumption that Guardiola is first and foremost an offensive coach, driven by goalscoring headlines and wonderful trained attacking talent. The tactical counterpoint to this is that Guardiola’s first thought is essentially defensive, with his main obsession controlling the ball and constraining the opposition.
Guardiola’s real fetish is for hyper-mobile midfielders and full-backs. Sometimes he can even seem a little cold on the other stuff that poachers, dribblers, merchants help. The City manager this week has suggested the club just can’t afford to buy a center forward this summer. Still, £ 100million was spent on Nathan Aké and João Cancelo last year, over-storing the key role of the utility defender-midfielder.
Meanwhile, Chelsea bought Timo Werner and Liverpool Diogo Jota for around the same amount as the worthy, but currently banked Aké. Hence the sensation of a slight entropy in attack. City are good enough to have taken more shots than anyone off the beaten track in the Premier League this season. But they’re also currently 10th in shots from inside the six-yard box, a City table usually leading.
The injuries of their two specialist center strikers were of course key. But explore who’s doing what right now and Sterling stands out as having maintained his levels: only two goals so far, but still most shots, most dribbles, most tackles, most interceptions. Take it out and the threat appears to be greatly diminished.
Sterling-dependencia: this is exaggerating the case. But it’s still a significant change from Pep’s early days when the new City manager was moved at one point to paint a chalk stain on the training ground and literally ask Sterling to stay there during the periods of loss of possession.
The ability to suck that, swallow the duds, keep coming back, has been key to Sterling’s altered status. The initial goal of City’s coaching staff was for Sterling to “miss two big chances” in every game. “We wanted him much closer to the penalty area. It was as if he was afraid of the goal, ”said Mikel Arteta. More misfires, more chances, more goals: the Jordan dynamic in miniature.
The pound sterling is also vital in other ways. His growing influence over those five years, the shift from a straight winger to a half-turn and deep-turn dynamo may mask the fact that City’s offensive recruitment has been relatively weak.
Since the summer of Sterling’s arrival, City have spent around £ 200million in transfer fees for seven other attackers. Only one, Riyad Mahrez, has become a prime starter. Three left the club. None have come close to an upgrade on players already at the club in Sterling’s first season.
In contrast, his former club successfully recruited targeted in attack. Roberto Firmino arrived the same summer Sterling left, Sadio Mané the following year, Mo Salah the following year. It’s an intriguing thought, and not one that rubs shoulders with a cheerfully scathing Anfield in November, but in isolation, the transfer of Sterling from Liverpool seems like a good move for all parties involved: well-supplied substitutes on one side; Sterling’s progress at City on the other.
This montage remains an unbroken border, a constant test of this will to bounce back, to swallow cuts and failures. Sterling has lost seven, drawn four and won twice against Liverpool since leaving. In March 2016, he was taunted at halftime in a 3-0 win that virtually ended any hope of progress under Manuel Pellegrini. Anfield’s trauma in April 2018 killed his best chance to win the Champions League to date.
Even in a great season, personally, the trauma of last November has left its mark. Entering this game, Sterling was flying. The four-month spell between Anfield and lockdown was his worst score in two years. Sunday may not be the day to reverse that trend, although City have reclaimed Gabriel Jesus, let alone a streak of five clean sheets in eight games. What seems certain is that the pound will continue to function, to fail, to rebound again.