PEP Guardiola is mocking his rivals now, standing tall, hands behind his back, inviting anyone to take the first punch.
In fact, it’s two punches. Gabriel Jesus was the first, with Guardiola selling the striker to Arsenal and Raheem Sterling will be the second, when he joins Chelsea.
Manchester City are essentially passing out their attackers to fellow members of the Big Six and inviting opponents to take the first swing.
It’s a hubristic update on Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope, luring in potential challengers with the unexpected promise of weakness and vulnerability only to be clobbered with the explosive one-two of Erling Haaland and Julian Alvarez.
Guardiola gives nothing away except false hope and the reported agreement between Manchester City and Chelsea over Sterling feels like a Jedi mind trick, convincing Thomas Tuchel that this is the player he’s been looking for.
Maybe he is. Despite the protestations of a vocal minority of Chelsea supporters, Sterling does fit the old Monty Python joke about the Romans. Apart from scoring 131 goals in 339 appearances and winning four league titles, what has Sterling ever done for City?
He’s done plenty for his grateful manager. Since Guardiola joined City in 2016, Sterling appeared more times for the club in the English Premier League – 194 – than anyone else. No one else surpassed his tally of 85 goals in that period either.
But to echo the concerns of every customer pondering a second-hand car, if the product is so reliable, why sell? Having bought Haaland, Guardiola believes he’s upgraded to the latest model; faster, slicker and more efficient.
The much loved Sterling benefitted from Guardiola’s regular modifications in their six years together, turning a quick winger into an astute and reliable goal supply, capable of cutting inside from either flank to slip those incisive passes across the box.
But Sterling was left in the garage far too often for a prestige vehicle, not featuring in the Champions League semi-final starting line-up – in both legs – and named in just six of City’s final 11 English Premier League games.
Guardiola’s gratitude for Sterling’s contributions was absolute, his trust less so. Sterling has been stamped with a sell-by date at the age of 27. Guardiola doesn’t flog players approaching their peak. Clearly, the City manager believes that moment has passed.
And even if it hasn’t, Sterling’s skill set does not appear to be a priority for Chelsea. While his goals per EPL game ratio – 0.55 – surpassed everyone playing for Tuchel’s Blues last season and his assists (0.21) was only bettered by Mason Mount (0.38), he retains the air of a household brand that Chelsea want rather than need.
New club chairman Todd Boehly presumably covets a polished trinket to usher in the post-Roman Abramovich era, and few come any shinier than an England international and serial trophy winner. Sterling is a statement of intent, all right, but what’s the intent?
Tuchel appears to have an aversion to conventionality, or conventional No.9s at least, treating them with something that borders on disdain, like a sanitation system within a luxurious abode. They are occasionally necessary to keep the rest of the place looking pretty and functional, but he’d rather not think about them – or use them – if it’s at all possible.
So Romelu Lukaku is out, but where does Sterling go in?
Ironically, the forward’s greatest, Guardiola-indoctrinated asset – versatility – makes him appealing to Tuchel. While Sterling favours the left side of attack, he can operate in either wide position or even as a false No.9.
A Lukaku-like fall from grace is highly unlikely as Sterling’s chameleonic qualities make him nimble and adaptable. But they can also make him forgettable.
In the latter stages of his City career, he veered perilously close to being a nearly man, rather than irreplaceable. He was handy in a variety of positions. He was also expendable.
And Chelsea are not short of attacking players with similar characteristics already. Just try picking their front three for next season.
Sterling could go to the left side, but there’s also the option of Timo Werner or Callum Hudson-Odoi. Sterling might be deployed in the middle, but there’s also Kai Havertz and Armando Broja, if they stay at the club. At a push, Sterling could even cut inside from the right, but Mount or Christian Pulisic can also occupy that position.
Tuchel advocates a quick, flexible style of play and naturally favours those capable of adjusting accordingly, in real time, in a way that Lukaku could not. But his personnel gives the sense of a squad churning out nifty, slight forwards that are virtually indistinguishable from one another.
Lukaku didn’t work, but he represented the textbook definition of an alternative option, which makes Chelsea’s reported interest in Robert Lewandowski understandable, to a degree. Like Guardiola, Tuchel already has players shaped in the Sterling mold.
But Guardiola sought something completely different in Haaland. Tuchel appears to be going for something distinctly familiar. If it ain’t broke, buy another one in Sterling.
Intriguingly, Sterling’s position isn’t even the priority for Chelsea. Andreas Christensen went to Barcelona and Antonio Rüdiger joined Real Madrid, leaving Tuchel with defensive issues that must supersede those involving which diminutive, near-identical forward to play in Chelsea’s attack of the clones.
Sterling’s position isn’t even the priority for Chelsea. Andreas Christensen went to Barcelona and Antonio Rüdiger joined Real Madrid, leaving Tuchel with defensive issues that must supersede those involving which diminutive, near-identical forward to play in Chelsea’s attack of the clones.
In central midfield, both Jorginho and N’Golo Kante are out of contract next summer and the latter seems dangerously close to confirming that he might not boast a third lung after all. The little engine that could, for a decade, is showing traces of being human. A search for a successor seems vital.
But the new Chelsea chairman wants Sterling, even if the manager probably needs reinforcements in other areas (and the fans are gathering splinters sitting on their fences. In 2018, Sterling suffered so much racist abuse at Stamford Bridge that he decided to speak out on the subject. Some fans have long memories and small brains. In all honesty, Sterling deserves better.)
Hopefully, the totemic footballer will flourish at Chelsea as he gradually moves towards the autumnal stages of career, benefitting from being a central figure in Tuchel’s plans rather than the bit-part player that he was becoming under Guardiola.
But he still feels a little like a luxury item, rather than a necessary purchase.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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