Rather crudely, Raheem Sterling was reminded of his past upon his return to Anfield just a few weeks ago.
Booed almost every time he touched the ball and targeted by a Liverpool side eager to wind him up, the winger endured a difficult evening as Manchester City suffered a damaging defeat. On the whole, though, nobody of an objective eye can condemn Sterling’s decision to leave Liverpool when he did.
By swapping Anfield for the Etihad Stadium four years ago, Sterling took his game to the next level.
He has since become the defining talent in Pep Guardiola’s Man City team, a team that also includes players like Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva. To call the 24-year-old City’s Messi might be taking things a little too far, but as Guardiola’s current difference-maker-in-chief there is a comparison to be drawn between the role the great man plays for Barcelona and the one Sterling has for City.
Now, however, it seems that Sterling is nearing another career crossroads. Recent reports claim the forward is stalling on signing a new contract, thought to be worth £450,000-a-week, with the reigning Premier League champions until assurances are offered that Guardiola will still be at the club beyond the 18 months he has left on his own deal.
It’s understandable that Sterling has tied his own future to that of Guardiola.
The Catalan coach has been key in turning the England international into the player he is today.
Indeed, Sterling was unpolished and raw when he arrived at the Etihad Stadium, whereas now he is accomplished in almost every way. The epitome of the modern forward.
But with Guardiola believed to be assessing his own future, Sterling must think ahead. What will be best for his career once Guardiola leaves? As has been proven at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich, there tends to be a drop-off once Guardiola leaves a club.
It’s reasonable to assume the same thing will happen at Man City.
Just like he did at Liverpool, Sterling might be required to make a difficult decision to up his level even further. There will be no shortage of suitors should he decide to leave Man City, with Real Madrid thought to be long term admirers.
The Santiago Bernabeu would certainly be a suitable stage for Sterling.
The greatest development in Sterling’s game has come in his transformation not just as a finisher, but from a winger into a versatile forward who can play anywhere across the frontline.
“I know the special qualities of the player, the consistency, physicality, the finishing,” Guardiola explained after using Sterling in a central role for a match earlier in the season.
“He is in his first days playing as a striker but for me striker will be an incredible position for him, but he can play in three positions up front.”
This quality is just another thing that makes Sterling one of the most valuable players in the game right now.
He might already be the best player in the Premier League, scoring 24 times in his last 46 appearances, but a move to somewhere like Real Madrid where he would experience new cultures, new ways of playing and work under new managers could make him a transcendental talent.
Great players often possess the knack for knowing when is the right time to move on.
Cristiano Ronaldo has it, swapping Manchester United for Real Madrid and then Real Madrid for Juventus at the right time. The enemy of progression is stagnation and Sterling could feasibly encounter it post-Guardiola at Man City.
Of course, this isn’t to say Sterling should move just for the sake of it. There isn’t exactly an entirely stable dressing room environment at Real Madrid right now.
However, at 24 it’s about now that Sterling should be considering what can take him to the next level. He mustn’t rule out leaving City just like he did Liverpool.