Jamie Carragher: 'Sterling's development reminds me of Ronaldo's - and he can win the Ballon d'Or'
When Raheem Sterling was named the Football Writers' Player of the Year last season, it was not entirely due to his football.
Virgil van Dijk was given the honour by his peers at the Professional Footballers' Association, a judgement vindicated when he was Uefa's best in 2019 and emerged as favourite for the Ballon d'Or.
In Pep Guardiola's eyes, even Bernardo Silva pipped Sterling as Manchester City's player of the season.
The justification for Sterling picking up his award was as much for his impact off the pitch as excellence in City's title defence, football writers acknowledging his hugely-important anti-racism stand. It was a noble gesture by the FWA and - based on this worthy criteria - no-one was going to argue with the reasoning.
Sterling's public image has now been completely transformed, helped enormously by the radical change in media coverage turning him from some kind of bad boy - which he never was - to the opposite extreme, where there appears to be a stampede of journalists willing to present him as a saint.
Every time Raheem gives his boots or shirt to a spectator in the crowd the image goes viral on social media. Commendable as that it is, it's time to make this point: it is not Sterling's engaging with fans after a match that makes him stand out from the crowd - plenty of high-profile players do that. It is his talent that we should be screaming from the rooftops about now.
Over the last 12 months we have seen Sterling emerge as one of the great players of this era who is improving by the week. His productivity with goals and assists is rising to extraordinary levels.
His next goal will be his 40th for club and country since the start of last season. He has eight in eight games for England.
I have seen it written since the midweek internationals that Sterling is England's best player. He is much more than that. He is now in the top five or six best attacking players in the world, in that group just below Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
I wrote recently that he and Sadio Mane are the best left-sided players out there. I now rate Sterling above Neymar. His ambition, alongside Kylian Mbappe, should be to fill the post-Messi and Ronaldo void once they retire. He is a potential Ballon d'Or winner over the next four or five years. His current upward trajectory is destined to make Sterling a global superstar.
I would go so far as to say there is a similarity with Cristiano Ronaldo's development at Manchester United. I read an interview with former United coach Rene Meulensteen earlier this week discussing how he challenged Ronaldo on how many goals he was targeting having struck 23 in 2006-'07.
"Cristiano told me he would aim for 30 goals - and I immediately told him he should be aiming for 40. He was shocked - but he scored 42 goals that season," said Meulensteen.
The concept of the wide striker was revolutionised by Ronaldo and he has not stopped breaking goal records since, striking another four for his country earlier this week. Sterling has different traits, yet his capacity to get on the end of opportunities means he too can be prolific.
As he does not take penalties or free-kicks like Ronaldo, it is difficult to match his strike rate, but Sterling should certainly target 30 goals for City in this campaign and look to repeat those numbers for the peak of his career.
He has scored 40 goals in last 70 Premier League games and his shot-to-goal ratio is currently higher than Sergio Aguero's. Prior to that, he had 31 in 160 games.
Yet he is not an outstanding finisher. There are numerous examples of his wastefulness, even in the midweek game against Kosovo.
He has improved, but when first seeing him at Liverpool I did not think he was the cleanest striker of the ball. He was a winger who did not take corners, nor could you imagine him finding the top corner with a 25-yard free-kick. I never envisaged he would become as good as he is and thought Liverpool had secured a good deal to get just under £50million. I was wrong. By the end of his career it will be obvious City bought him at a bargain price.
It is his movement off the ball which is frightening. He never stops sprinting for 90 minutes and has become a poacher, much of his goals seeming to be easy tap-ins but owing everything to his intelligence. It means he can be a great goalscorer rather than a scorer of great goals.
Most of this improvement is attributed to Pep Guardiola and although there is no doubt his arrival at Manchester City and style of football has aided Sterling, we should also be careful before assigning too much credit to a coach when a player fulfils potential.
It is one thing for the manager to guide you and give you the right instructions. It is another to take it and execute those plans so well. All the players get the same information and you need the talent and intelligence to make the most of it.
Football is not about one-to-one coaching like in an individual sport such as tennis. The information is there for every member of the 25-man squad on the training pitch and in team meetings, so the question is, who is listening?
I experienced similar when Rafa Benitez took over at Liverpool. My performance level rose as I was given the fixed position of centre-back and coached to become a better defender. Not every defender at Liverpool excelled under Rafa. Not every wide player at City has blossomed like Sterling.
Plenty suspected the signings of Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez would see Sterling demoted to a squad player. Instead, he is a guaranteed starter in the biggest games.
I also love the fact Raheem is rarely, if ever, injured. His appearance record is amazing. He has already played 378 senior games, which is more than Michael Owen at the same age of 24, and yet his body is getting stronger rather than showing signs of wear and tear.
When the next awards are dished out and we are discussing what makes Sterling so great, there will be no reason to validate his claims because of forthright interviews or his handing over of football boots to young fans, appreciated and worthwhile as all that is.
Above all else, it is Sterling's brilliance on the pitch that has taken him this far in his flourishing career. (© Daily Telegraph, London)