Raheem Sterling might be about to return to west London, to take his career full circle in a sense. Andrew Beasley analyses the pros and cons behind his potential move to Chelsea.
The 77-cap England international played youth team football at Queens Park Rangers, prior to his move to Liverpool. After 129 appearances for the Reds, he joined Manchester City, where he has spent the last seven seasons.
But Sterling is now on the brink of joining Chelsea. At the time of writing, he is 4/9 to join the Blues, 13/8 to stay with City, and 20/1 bar those options to sign elsewhere. His immediate future is a two-horse race.
As he only has one year remaining on his contract, this summer represents the champions’ last opportunity to receive a healthy fee for his signature. But should they allow Sterling to join a rival both at home and in Europe?
And if Chelsea sign the 27-year-old, can he succeed where Romelu Lukaku and other highly-rated forwards before him have failed at Stamford Bridge?
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Why Man City could cash in on Sterling
Only time will tell if City’s apparent decision to sell Sterling will prove correct. What is clear, though, is that with the signings of Erling Braut Haaland and Julian Alvarez, Pep Guardiola is looking to play a conventional striker in 2022-23, having not used one consistently for quite some time.
Although Sterling can play centrally in the attack – and has scored 14 goals in 28 appearances there for City – he is clearly a different type of player to those who City have recently bought.
And even without the new forwards, he had been slipping down the pecking order at the Etihad. After playing 2,788 Premier League minutes in 2018-19, Sterling’s total has dropped year-on-year for the three seasons since.
He looks less vital to Guardiola in the biggest games too. Sterling only started five of City’s 10 matches against the rest of the Premier League’s top six this season, where (for instance) Gabriel Jesus was in the XI for six of them and Phil Foden began seven of the last eight.
Sterling also started just five of 12 in the Champions League, so while he remained a valuable member of City’s squad, he is less of a guaranteed inclusion than he once was.
Minutes played by Manchester City attackers
Sterling remains a consistent performer
An underrated aspect of Sterling is his ability to remain fit. He has only had 11 reported injuries in the last six years, and only two of those absences lasted for longer than two weeks.
More important is the consistency with which he either scores or assists goals. In both 2017-18 and 2018-19, Sterling hit double figures in the league for both statistics, and only Leroy Sane, Son Heung-Min and Mohamed Salah (three times) have done this at least twice in the Premier League in the last five seasons.
In that period, Sterling has provided a non-penalty goal or assist every 117 minutes.
And while his rate has fluctuated in that time, as it does for all players, Sterling’s longest run of consecutive league starts without making a direct contribution to a goal is only four, and that has only occurred once.
Infogol’s data illustrates the City man’s reliability in front of goal. Across his time in Manchester, Sterling has scored almost exactly as many league goals as his underlying numbers suggest he should have. He might not enjoy red-hot seasons but neither does he suffer from ice-cold stretches.
Sterling stats for City
Sterling’s talent is not in doubt. What might be an issue is whether Chelsea can provide him with the same quality of chances as City consistently have, as very few teams in world football can.
Pep’s poacher may find chances harder to come by
Stamford Bridge has become something of a graveyard for attacking players. In their first seasons with the Blues, Alvaro Morata, Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku scored four, 18 and 16 league goals respectively fewer than they had in their final campaigns with their previous clubs.
Sterling may have an advantage in that he is joining from another team in England, but extensive Premier League experience did little to aid Lukaku in 2021-22.
Nonetheless, perhaps the key fact from Chelsea’s perspective is that Sterling has bagged more goals in the league than their top scorer in each of the last five seasons, a period in which they’ve failed to maintain a title challenge.
There is, however, an aspect of Sterling’s goalscoring with City which will be hard to replicate anywhere else. He has a reputation as being a poor finisher, even though his expected goal data suggests otherwise. There is a fly in the ointment though.
Per Understat, over his seven seasons with City, Sterling has scored approximately three goals more than expected in the six-yard box, but almost 10 fewer than he should have in the rest of the penalty area.
In 2021-22, City had 68 shots in the six-yard box, the most of any team in Europe’s big five leagues, while Chelsea had 40 to rank joint 31st across England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
If the Blues acquire Sterling, he should help with this issue though, as he has been in the Premier League’s top five players for receiving progressive passes in the last five seasons. His movement allows teammates to find him in space in very dangerous areas.
In December 2020, he also became the first player to have won 20 penalties in the English top flight and drawing fouls in the box is a great skill to possess.
But with fewer tap-in opportunities likely, it will be hard for Sterling to maintain his goalscoring form.
Would Sterling provide Chelsea value for money?
With stories claiming the transfer fee could be anywhere between £35m and £60m, it looks difficult to assess if this would be a good value deal for Chelsea or not.
But it’s important to remember the average cost of signing a player almost always rises from season to season. Applying transfer inflation as devised by Paul Tomkins and Graeme Riley, in 2021-22 “money” the Blues had, in the past, spent in the region of £54m on Baba Rahman, £45m on Tiemoue Bakayoko and £39m on Danny Drinkwater.
There are no certainties in football, but it would be a shock if Sterling didn’t offer considerably more than those three players of broadly similar (inflation adjusted) cost did.
His tactical flexibility should only make him even more valuable to Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel, who likes to deploy a back three, two wingbacks and two central midfielders. The trio in front of them vary a little though, with either a 2-1 formation or a more standard three as Tuchel sees fit. Sterling should be able to play any of the roles in either of these attacking frameworks.
Why is Sterling a divisive figure among fans?
Considering how consistent he is and with the tactical options he provides, it is somewhat surprising that Sterling is a divisive figure, with many supporters on both sides of the City and Chelsea divide ambivalent about his potential move.
Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t had that many memorable moments in big games.
When you’ve played for Manchester United’s two fiercest rivals for the entirety of your career, a record of no goals in 23 matches against the Red Devils is not a great look. Sterling has never scored at Stamford Bridge, and his only away goal at Anfield occurred behind closed doors against an injury-ravaged Liverpool.
It’s a similar story in the Champions League; although he scored twice against Tottenham at the Etihad in the 2019 quarter-final, that remains the only match in the last eight or later in which he has found the net.
Away from the pitch, he’s also rightly unafraid to speak his mind, to which not everyone takes kindly (even though they should). The fact a Chelsea supporter was banned for life for racially abusing Sterling in 2018 will surely be a consideration when deciding about whether to join the club too.
But with City likely moving in a different direction with their style of attack, Sterling no longer a regular big-game starter there and Chelsea in need of a consistent goalscorer, this potential transfer could work well for all three involved parties.