Unsung Sterling's everyday excellence embodies Man City's record-breaking renaissance

Raheem Sterling Manchester City 2020-21
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The England international now has seven direct goal involvements in his last eight league appearances after heading the winner against Arsenal

Match statistics: Arsenal 0-1 Manchester City

It shows just how far Raheem Sterling has come as a reliable contributor that his role in Manchester City’s current winning run has almost gone under the radar.

While many of his team-mates have been earning recent plaudits, the England international has been quietly doing what he has done ever since Pep Guardiola took over at the Etihad Stadium.

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It was Sterling who scored the only goal of the game in the second minute of Sunday's 1-0 win over Arsenal, meaning he now has five goals and two assists in his last eight Premier League matches.

He also has 20 goals in away league matches since the start of last season, more than any other player in the top-flight. This was the third straight year he has netted on the road against the Gunners, something only two other players have ever done.

This latest victory saw City extend their winning streak to 18 matches in all competitions, 12 of which have come in the Premier League as they re-established their 10-point lead at the top.

Not so long ago question marks lingered over Sterling’s finishing, but they have long been consigned too to history.

The 26-year-old would occasionally panic as he bore down on goal or rush a finish, and that could occasionally have an impact on his confidence.

He is still capable of the odd alarming miss - him blazing over from close range in last season’s shock Champions League exit to Lyon springs to mind - but Guardiola has built up the winger's belief so much that now he knows he will take the next chance that comes along.

City were fast out of the blocks at the Emirates Stadium, and Sterling was presented with a big opportunity inside 60 seconds when Ilkay Gundogan picked him out at the back post.

Sterling Manchester City 2021

The former Liverpool man swiped at the opportunity, making a terrible contact that allowed the Gunners defence to close him down quickly to stop a second attempt.

Walking away from the incident, Sterling allowed himself a wry smile at his error. No more than a minute later he had opened the deadlock. 

Riyad Mahrez swung over another cross from the right, and Sterling cleverly evaded the attention of Rob Holding to dispatch a simple header past Bernd Leno.

"It's not rare, I've scored a few in my time, but not many," the 5' 7" (170cm) star told BBC Sport post-match. "It's a real special one when I get my head on it so I'm real happy with that one.

"I didn't know where it was going to land, but you have to be in the box to score it and that's exactly what I've done there, tried to anticipate where Riyad was going to put it and it was right on my head."

Sterling's goal came from a brilliantly simple piece of movement that wrongfooted the Arsenal defence and illustrates why he is so effective in Guardiola’s masterplan.

The City boss not only started without a recognised striker in north London, but without an orthodox false nine either.

That position was filled by almost all of City’s attacking players at various times during the opening 60 minutes before the introduction of Gabriel Jesus from the bench.

Manchester City celebrate Arsenal 2021

Kevin De Bruyne, back for his first start in more than a month, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan were happy to rotate from attacking midfield positions into the role while Sterling also ditched his role out wide at times to play through the middle and occupy centre-backs Holding and Pablo Mari.

At times in the opening half hour, City threatened to demolish the Gunners as they cut them open time and again, most notably when Sterling stumbled over a potential shot when played in by a typically well-weighted De Bruyne through ball.

And though Arsenal finally found some belief, it was noticable how Sterling took the responsibility to drop deeper and show his commitment by helping out Oleksandr Zincheko.

"We’ve had to grind out lots of 1-0 wins throughout the season and it’s another one here today," Sterling said. "We just had to keep grinding out those wins and now we’re in a better position for it."

This was not a classic performance by City’s recent standards, but they managed to get the job done thanks to Sterling's match-winning moment.

His next goal will be the 150th of his career for club and country. Not bad for a forward that cannot finish.