Raheem Sterling’s physical attributes are clear for all to see.
He travels at ferocious pace, both with and without the ball, while his small stature belies a boxer’s core, built to survive anything the dark arts of defending throws at it.
But there’s another part of Sterling’s game that can’t be measured using speed tests or weights. It’s not visible to the naked eye. That part is Sterling’s football IQ.
There was no shortage of managers, players and pundits lining up to heap praise on Sterling following his five-star showing against Atalanta, in which a first Champions League hat-trick was accompanied by two assists.
Pep Guardiola labelled his display ‘extraordinary’, John Stones spoke of his ‘willingness to do the dirty things’ and Rio Ferdinand went as far to name Sterling as one of the best five players in the world, placing him in the same conversation as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and two others- debate amongst yourselves.
But the best insight into Sterling’s elite-level football IQ, a balanced combination of nature and nurture, came from a man with his own piece of Champions League pedigree.
Cillian Sherdian made his Champions League debut for Celtic as a teenager at Old Trafford, taking to the pitch with Man United already 3-0 up and Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez in full flight.
That was as good as it got for the 30-year-old, who now turns out for Israeli Premier League side Ironi Kiryat Shmona following spells in Australia, Poland, Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria.
But while his career may have tailed off from the heights of the Champions League, Sherdian’s tweets still offer up world-class pearls of wisdom.
The striker revealed he’d once been on the same flight with Sterling and witnessed the 24-year-old watching the game in which he’d just played on an iPad. After striking up conversation with Sterling, Sheridan discovered that he’s questioned by Guardiola after every game.
Sterling’s shrewd football IQ was working in overdrive against Atalanta.
For Sergio Aguero’s first goal Sterling pulled out wide to receive a pass from Ilkay Gundogan and, despite having ample space to dribble at the defender, waited for Benjamin Mendy’s overlap to cut in and put the ball on his team-mate’s toe.
For Aguero’s second, Sterling ignored the easier pass to Phil Foden, instead opting to play a one-two with Kevin De Bruyne. That decision opened up the pitch and allowed Sterling to charge into Atalanta’s box at pace, winning a penalty with a flash of quick feet.
Having spent much of the game tight to the touchline receiving comfortable possession, Sterling instead darted in behind Atalanta’s right-back to score his first of the game. That ability to vary between coming short to link play and running in behind is a major reason why Sterling is currently in such devastating form.
The goal with which Sterling sealed his hat-trick would undoubtedly have been Guardiola’s favourite.
Sterling started the move on the left-hand touchline, providing an outlet for Mendy who had tucked in, as Guardiola’s full-backs tend to do.
When the ball instead went inside, Sterling ambled towards the box, being careful to stay in his marker’s blind spot.
As the ball was recycled, Sterling again pulled out wide, only to sprint inside the defender when the ball went right to Riyah Mahrez. The Algerian’s cross was a mirror image of the ball with which Sterling had earlier supplied Aguero.
The minute details of body shape, feints and five-yard sprints are often lost when the ball is tapped in from six yards out, as was the case with City’s fifth goal.
But, as simple as it looked, Sterling’s hat-trick was a result of hard, and probably very boring, work on the training pitch coupled with an innate ability to understand where a passage of play is heading before it unfolds.
Guardiola deserves plenty of praise for taking Sterling’s game to the next level.
But there aren’t many players who can take Guardiola’s intense stream of consciousness and convert them into something that make sense on a football pitch.
For that, Sterling deserves a diploma.
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