With Gabriel Jesus hitting the net in just three games so far this season, Pep Guardiola may have uncovered a viable alternative to the misfiring Brazilian in the Manchester Derby, in the form of Raheem Sterling.
Sterling’s scoreless run against Manchester United spanned to a whopping twelve games on Sunday but his overall performance was impressively busy and productive, particularly after Ilkay Gundogan replaced Sergio Aguero in the 75th minute.
The subsequent reshuffle pushed the England international to the most central attacking role and all of City’s buildup play thereafter seemed to go through him. Although Manchester United were far from their best off the ball – in fact, they were pretty atrocious throughout – Sterling showed not only his technical prowess and mobility in tight areas but also the level of strength to hold off physical challenges from Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof.
In fact, the final goal which killed off the game, City’s third, probably wouldn’t have happened without Sterling’s change in position. Guardiola’s side were knocking on the door without really penetrating until their 44-pass goal in the dying embers of the match.
The former Liverpool star was only involved in four of those, but a darting run across the box helped drag United’s defence out of shape as the centre-backs crossed over – Sterling then laid back to Bernardo Silva, who was able to cross to an unmarked Gundogan. The German international should have been under the watch of Smalling, but he’d moved from right to left to track Sterling’s run instead.
Guardiola made the false nine role revolutionary and iconic with the help of Lionel Messi at Barcelona and although Aguero does perform similar duties at times for City, particularly in terms of dropping deep and the quality of his passing, the Argentine is still very much a striker first and foremost, someone whose natural reaction to any offensive situation will be to find a way of scoring.
On the other hand, Sterling – who Transfermarkt value at £81million – is much more of a build-up player who has made significant improvements to his game to add a much-needed supply of goals. And while he’s of course not in the same calibre as Messi, the 23-year-old does share some important traits that make him well suited to a false nine role. Chief amongst those are a low centre of gravity that helps him turn defenders, the intelligence to sneak into dangerous pockets of space across the front-line and the speed to run at opponents on the break.
Of course, the composure required to produce consistent output remains Sterling’s ultimate drawback and one he’s clearly put a lot of time into improving. But in some senses, that doesn’t matter so much with the false nine role – it’s all about the pass before the pass, rather than the finish or the killer ball. That was evident in City’s third goal on Saturday.
City certainly have the firepower out wide to make that structure of front-line work; even with Sterling moved into a central position, Leroy Sane, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva have all established their scoring prowess from the flanks at Premier League level.
So, City fans, who do you think should be the predominant alternative to Aguero as City’s most central attacker? Let us know by voting below…