Raheem Sterling: Pep Guardiola's tough love brings out the best in me
It was at Selhurst Park on New Year’s Eve that Raheem Sterling feared he had blown his big chance under Pep Guardiola – but bouncing back is something the forward has needed to become good at for club and country.
Manchester City had been held to a goalless draw and Guardiola had been less than impressed by Sterling’s impact from the substitutes’ bench.
But it transpired that Guardiola’s harsh words were all part of the learning experience and Sterling responded in the best possible way, by scoring two days later against Watford.
“He [Guardiola] lets you know when he’s not happy with you,” said Sterling. “I remember coming on against Crystal Palace. I lost the ball three times and I didn’t think I was going to play until the end of the season after he killed me in the dressing room.
“A manager like that brings the best out of you, when he makes sure to tell you when you’re in the wrong.”
Sterling certainly is not short of competition at City and it is that threat of losing his place that has helped him to push on.
“When there’s doubt, when it comes to that point, that’s where I’m at my best, when I have got competition,” said Sterling. “Last summer, I saw Bernardo Silva signed and I thought ‘when I get back, I’ve got to make sure I’m on it because there’s more competition’. I was looking forward to it. Sometimes you read you might not be in the squad and I think ‘OK then, cool, we’ll see about that’. Stuff like that brings the best out of me.”
It is not all tough love and uncertainty under Guardiola, however. A video of the manager giving Sterling one-on-one tutoring that resulted in a Champions League goal against Feyenoord went viral last year.
Trying to describe what he has learned under Guardiola, Sterling said: “When I used to dribble, I’d be on the wing and I’d control it with the outside of my foot – it slows the ball down. He brings you back to what you used to do with the under-eights, open your body up, gets the rhythm going again – little details like that.”
Sterling has been forced to grow broad shoulders since his £49 million move in 2015 and the European Championship the following year, during which he felt scapegoated for England’s dismal showing.
Having become a target of a section of travelling England fans in France, Sterling referred to himself as “the hated one”, which prompted a telephone call of encouragement from Guardiola.
“I had a rough year, my first year at Man City, a big club for a big transfer fee,” said Sterling. “There was a lot of talk, a lot of pressure, and I didn’t think I was being spoken about in a fair manner.
“As a young boy – I was 20-21, around that age – I didn’t think I was being treated right. It can affect anyone, not just me. It was about how I bounced back, how I had to think and sit down and try to move on. Not let that defeat me.
“It’s obviously disappointing, when you put on the shirt and get negative feedback, but at the same time the fans want to see you perform well. I’ve learned they’re not doing it in a malicious way, they’re doing it in a way to make you know you need to step up. In a way, it’s good for someone like me because I thrive on stuff like that.”
Daniel Sturridge supported Sterling by insisting the forward needed to be nurtured and the 23-year-old believes England players will thrive if they are given the right support.
“Daniel said it and I think it’s something we probably need to do a lot more in this country – try to help the players,” said Sterling. “I think at times we get judged a bit too early and that probably doesn’t work in our favour.
“With the support we can give in this country, if we do it a lot more I think you will see a lot more of the players coming up, the players who are trying to establish themselves and aren’t quite there yet.”
Sterling certainly appears a lot more at ease with himself these days.
Talking ahead of England’s friendly against Italy, he was confident enough to crack a joke at the expense of manager Gareth Southgate, sitting next to him, when asked about his form in front of goal for the national team.
Despite netting 20 times for City this season, Sterling has not scored for England since October 2015 and has only two goals to his name in total for the national team.
Asked why there was such a discrepancy, Sterling said: “I think it is because the gaffer takes me off early!
“It is a different environment, different set-up, but, at the end of the day, I should be scoring a lot more for England and I put a lot of pressure on myself.
“I’ve done that at my club. I wasn’t scoring a lot of goals there as well, but the turnaround happened and I started scoring. It’s the same with England. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well and score more, and it will be a matter of time.
“Once you get back into that rhythm, you will start getting balls that drop to you in positions where it wasn’t before. I do have that feeling that it is going to come soon.”