Saturday, July 11, 2015

Sterling Will Appreciate At City

The Sterling saga has dragged on and on, and will seemingly continue to do so. City are right that the market for Sterling is nowhere near 50 million pounds, and Liverpool are right that City are the club that would overpay the market. That's because City and Sterling are the perfect fit of player and club, the kind that comes around very infrequently. City's reasons for pursuing Sterling are well-known: he's English, talented, young, and pacy, attributes City have sore need of in their team for various reasons. Still, there's far less talk about why Sterling should move to City, with a lot of fans convinced he would be better off at Liverpool (largely remembering the fate of Rodwell and Sinclair, and ignoring the success of Milner and Barry). But I think City really are the better fit for him at this point in his career. No, Liverpool fans, it isn't because Sterling is going to a club full of supposed money-grabbers, but rather that City are the club best-placed to complete his development into a true star.

This might be less obvious to most people, but it's true nonetheless. The major statistical problem Sterling had last season (and according to the papers, one of his problems with the club) was that Rodgers often played him out of position at right back and as a central striker. My feeling is he is at his best as an attacking midfielder, and in fact he has achieved his best ratings from in that position (7.61, compared to 7.12 as a forward and 6.47 as a right wingback). That's precisely where City will play him, whether they line up in their 4-2-2-2 or a 4-2-3-1. Pellegrini may be justifiably criticized for refusing to move players around at times, but there's no denying Sterling will appreciate being given his preferred role.

He'll also have a lot less pressure on him than he did at Liverpool, where he was forced to carry a pretty heavy load. Sterling played over 3000 minutes last year, ranking 30th in the entire league among outfield players, which is something considering his club manager and country manager have at times both publicly stated the need to keep him fresh. At City, no outfield player averaged more than 2700 minutes, and he will benefit from City's depth giving him chances to rest. Cynics will say that City's depth will mean he'll rot on the bench, but I doubt that very highly given his profile and the fact that of the 4 main attacking midfielders City fielded last season, none of them played fewer than 1500 minutes in the Premier League.

However, the pressure at Liverpool didn't come solely from his minutes total, but also Sterling's role as a main focus of Liverpool's attacking play. Borrowing from basketball statistics, I've developed my own version of usage rate, which tracks the number of possessions per game a player uses (the formula is here: {[Shots + Unsuccessful Passes + Unsuccessful Take-Ons + Key Passes]*90}/Minutes). This is a useful measure to see which players are most involved in a team's attack. Of players who played more than 1000 minutes, Sterling had the second-highest usage rate on Liverpool behind Coutinho (and contributed more goals and assists in the possessions used, by the way), showing that a huge chunk of Liverpool's attack went through him. On City, with Silva, Aguero, Bony, and Toure playing alongside him, he'll have a lot more people to share the offensive load. That should help him to become an even more effective attacking talent, using his pace off the ball more and becoming a more complete threat.

Sterling and City would be a great match, so great I'm almost convinced it won't actually happen. City get to tick off the homegrown box with a genuine talent, and Sterling continues his development in an environment with less pressure and surrounded by better teammates than he had at Liverpool. City and Liverpool actually completing this transfer would benefit them both, but in my mind, Sterling has the most to gain by City spending his namesake.

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