As Manchester City bid to finish the job against Monaco tonight, we take a look at the recent impact Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane are having on the team.
Had Mark Hughes been watching Middlesbrough’s usually sturdy back line crumble against Manchester City on a rare Saturday off, he will have been counting himself lucky.
His Stoke side battled to a goalless draw three days previous, but Pep Guardiola’s decision to omit Sterling and blunt his front three certainly worked in Hughes’ and the Potters’ favour.
Guardiola had separated Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling for the first time in eight games and the laboured performance that followed gave a clear indication of how important the duo are to this City side. In the last eight fixtures in which they had started together before the draw, Sane and Sterling had contributed an impressive total of eight goals and six assists between them. Without the rested Sterling, City could only muster one shot on target.
Had it been Sane who was left out of the starting XI the result may well have been similar. Since a tactical shift was enforced following the humiliating 4-0 defeat to Everton in January, Sane and Sterling have been at the centre of City’s improved form, working in tandem to drive their team forward and relentlessly harass their opponents into mistakes.
When one player gallops towards the byline the other bursts into the penalty area, ready to pounce should the cross evade the striker. City have made a habit of scoring this type of goal since the system was implemented.
Hugging their respective touchlines in front of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne operating as free 8’s, the wingers have been tasked with both creating chances and scoring goals on a consistent basis. In City’s 2-0 FA Cup quarter-final victory over Middlesbrough, the pair each added another assist to their tallies.
Asked about what it’s like to play with Aguero, Sane was typically modest: “He’s a great player, it’s a lot of fun to play with him”.
But with six goals to his name since being reintroduced into the team against Bournemouth, it is Aguero who perhaps should have been asked what it’s like to play with the two fully firing starlets.
The Argentine’s reintegration process since Gabriel Jesus suffered an injury to his metatarsal has been made easier by the form of Sane and Sterling who have propelled City to an undefeated run of 11 games in all competitions since their alliance was conceived.
Pressing from the front, as well as good, old-fashioned ferocious wing-play, has become synonymous with Guardiola’s team in the last two months, meaning City’s defence has developed a robustness it lacked in earlier stages of the season.
Speaking after his side secured their place in the semi-final at Wembley, the Catalan alluded to the importance of defending high up the pitch: “When you attack good, you defend good. When the ball is far away from our goal, we’re safe.”
The energy displayed by the two young attackers has become contagious.
Aguero’s work rate has increased significantly and the striker now seems to be doing exactly what his manager wanted from him all along. Without Sane and Sterling alongside him, Aguero’s battle to win Guardiola over may have been less achievable. But in this set up, the 28-year-old striker will have no worries about getting his name on the scoresheet for as long as he stays at the club.
From now until the end of the season one of Guardiola’s primary objectives will be to keep the duo fit. With only Nolito and Jesus Navas to call upon should one of the pair sustain an injury, Guardiola will have legitimate worries over whether his side can maintain the high level they have managed to reach, especially in high profile games against Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.
City’s third and fourth choice wingers were fielded in the 0-0 draw against Huddersfield last month and City’s struggle to create chances that day was in large part down to the lack of imagination shown by the two Spaniards. It’s clear that Sane and Sterling are a huge upgrade and Guardiola must upgrade his options from the bench if his side are to push on next season.
But for now, with both players fit, the Manchester City manager should be delighted with the progression they have shown. In Sane and Sterling Guardiola has two of the most productive attacking players in European football and two exciting attackers that have a great future ahead of them.