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 By Tony Evans

Sterling on the way to being one of Europe's most dangerous forwards

Raheem Sterling has never been the most popular player in the Premier League. The suggestion in 2014 that he was too tired to play for England -- a foolish misunderstanding that was unfair to the player -- created the idea that the youngster was a dilettante. His acrimonious departure from Liverpool was held up as one of the symbols of modern football's greed. The image could not be more unfair. Few footballers work as hard as Sterling.

Whether you like him or not, however, you have to give the Manchester City winger credit: He keeps getting better in the face of his critics.

Sterling's skill was never in question, of course, but there have been periods in the 22-year-old's career when he seemed to plateau. But each time he has risen to the challenge and this season, he has reached new heights at Manchester City.

Sterling has thrived under Pep Guardiola. City paid £49 million to Liverpool for Sterling two years ago and some suggested that Anfield got the better end of the deal. Increasingly, it looks like City got a bargain. The winger's late-winning strike in the 2-1 victory over Huddersfield Town at the weekend was his 12th goal in all competitions this season.

Guardiola works hard with his players on the training ground and Sterling has been a particular focus for the manager. The Catalan has been keen to change the winger's body shape when receiving the ball so that Sterling's first touch puts him in position to play a pass forward or run at a man.

Too often in the past, Guardiola suggested, Sterling was caught with his back to goal leading to a sideways pass or too many touches on the ball which allowed defenders to close him down. The City manager wanted Sterling to be more direct and dangerous.

Shooting was never the youngster's strongest attribute, but Sterling has put in extra sessions with co-assistant coach Mikel Arteta designed to improve his production in front of goal. So far the additional work is paying dividends. The winger's goal tally has surpassed his previous season's best after just a third of the campaign.

It is not just a matter of how Sterling strikes the ball. Part of the solution involved decision-making. Understanding when to shoot and from which positions are as important as making the right contact with the ball. The same is true of crossing. Sterling has made significant improvement in both these departments.

Raheem Sterling's goal on Sunday was his 12th of the season in all competitions.

Guardiola wants more than goals from his forwards. Unless they perform effectively in pressing the opposition's defence, his preferred system cannot operate securely. Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus are required to perform a high-tempo press when their team are not in possession.

This allows City's defenders to push up to the halfway line and squeeze the pitch. Opponents struggle to pass the ball out of their own half and Guardiola's side get to dictate the areas where the game is played and the pace of the match.

Sterling's work ethic has always been strong. While at Liverpool he tracked back to protect the full back from his wide attacking position. Brendan Rodgers even tried the England forward in a wing-back role. It was a misguided experiment that Sterling did not enjoy.

The sort of defensive effort that Guardiola demands from his strikers is more effective. It is executed close to the opposition's goal and is completely focused on winning possession. Sterling's willingness to work makes him perfect for this sort of role.

The City manager believes that there is still room for improvement in his winger. Throughout his development, Sterling has stepped up when it appeared his impact was being neutralised. From his early days at the Queens Park Rangers academy through his time at Liverpool, he has risen to each challenge.

He introduced new moves and tricks to confuse defenders and, at City, has spent a lot of time working in the gym to become stronger. Sterling was always difficult to knock off the ball, but he has become even more robust. The winger has grown physically and mentally during his time at the Etihad.

Indeed, it is a good time for the City winger to grow in stature. Guardiola's team are turning the title race into a procession and are poised to make a serious challenge for the Champions League.

England will benefit, too. Sterling is reaching his peak as the World Cup approaches. If he can develop an effective link with Harry Kane, Gareth Southgate's squad will have a very good chance of going a long way in Russia.

If Sterling continues to improve the way he has at City, he has the ability to become one of Europe's most dangerous attackers. He is within touching distance of greatness and Guardiola will nudge him in that direction.

Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.


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