Before the fixture with Stoke City, the last time Manchester City failed to win at home was against Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League back in January. In that game, the Citizens blew a 2-0 lead as the game finished 2-2.
They went on to win their next three games at the Etihad Stadium, games which were spread across three competitions, and they scored five times in two of them. They were fine in form, high in spirit, unbeaten in nine games. A fourth consecutive win in all competitions and a fifth consecutive one in the league beckoned, it seemed a foregone conclusion, especially against a Stoke side that had taken just two points from eight meetings with top six sides this season – both coming against the same team, Manchester United.
But the win never came. Mark Hughes' men became the first team to shut City out at the Etihad in any competition this season as they made off with a point. Hughes wanted his Potters to affect the title race, and they did just that, leaving his opposite number Pep Guardiola kicking himself.
The Spaniard had made a few changes to his side, key ones it turned out. For one, influential midfield string-puller David Silva started on the bench in spite of his impressive display away to Sunderland in the prior fixture, a decision that left Hughes breathing a huge sigh of relief. “We weren’t too upset when he wasn’t in the starting line up,” he said after the game.
Pep Guardiola on Raheem Sterling's absence this evening: “He is fine, we’ve just given him the night off." pic.twitter.com/Ptdg1GE5Bc
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) March 8, 2017
Another change saw Raheem Sterling left out of the squad entirely as he was given the night off. Just one shot on target showed that City really missed these two attacking forces. “We restricted City to very few clear-cut opportunities,” said a pleased Hughes, “the Silva one and the one at the end. I don’t think my keeper had a save to make in open play.”
Silva's influence has been well noted for some time as he is easily rated among the best players in the league, but the fact that Sterling was given the night off shows how far he has come since making his £49million move from Liverpool back in the summer of 2015.
The England international has nine goals and eight assists to his name in all competitions so far in what has been a season of much-needed improvement. Confidence and change are the key factors behind that. And Dr. Steve Peters.
The 22-year-old knows the sports psychiatrist since his Liverpool days and greatly appreciates the tremendous impact he has had on his mentality and by extension his career. “The way he [Peters] works is brilliant,” Sterling told the official Liverpool FC magazine back in April, 2014. “At first I thought it wasn't for me. On the outside you might think it's complicated, but all the messages are very straightforward.
“He understands the players and the emotional side of the game. What he says really helps you. We use a motto: ‘Focus on the ball, focus on the team.' I had a meeting with him before the Manchester City game. I thought it was going to last 20-25 minutes. So I walked in, sat down and he just said: ‘Focus on the ball, focus on the team.' ‘Is that it?' I asked him. But it was really important.”
Indeed it was. The mental aspect of the game is absolutely crucial. No matter how talented a player may be, a lack of focus or a failure to focus on the right things, the positive things, will prove a huge stumbling block in a player's quest to find consistent form and reach his potential. This, unfortunately, has been a constant battle for Sterling.
“Maybe on the outside people had the impression I've always been really confident,” he went on to say in the very same interview. “But after a good start [to last season] I started looking for easy options rather than taking a chance myself, beating a man, taking a shot on myself. I'd stopped being natural, [and doing] all the things that I'd done which got me into the first team in the first place.
In addition to Dr. Peters, Sterling's uncle had also paid him a visit in order to help motivate him. As it turns out, Sterling also had the problem of being too much in awe of his team-mates. “I wasn't confident enough to have a shot myself and instead I'd pass it to someone like Luis Suarez,” Sterling told the Daily Mirror in February of the same year. “I needed to be more confident again — you have to respect the senior players around you but you have to stamp your own mark on the game.
“He [my uncle] knows my game and he asked the club for a couple of DVDs from last season when I'd played well. He wanted to show me the difference. Last season, I'd have beaten a man in two touches and raced away. Suddenly, I was going safe, passing to someone else. I didn't realise I was doing it.”
Thankfully, he did realise something. “From December time I realised I had to start stamping my personality, running with the ball, running into the box, making goals, scoring goals,” he said at the end of his aforementioned interview with Liverpool FC magazine. “Not playing with that barrier, not to be worried about making mistakes.”
He ended that season with 11 goals in all competitions. However, that barrier, as well as others, would resurface following his big money move to City the following year.
At Liverpool, he had developed a close relationship with then-manager Brendan Rodgers, who knew well his strengths, personality, and off-field issues. At his new club he met a new manager, Manuel Pellegrini, who had a new idea of how to use him. It didn't really work.
“It was really difficult [last season] because I didn't feel I could play my natural game [under Pellegrini],” Sterling told the Mail on Sunday last October. “Everyone was two-touch kings. The whole training session was based on two touches. I wasn't able to dribble. I like to dribble and I like to have fun and take players on. But you can't do that with two touches. Sometimes, the way it works is that what you do in training sessions is what you do in the game. You get in a habit.”
That habit contributed greatly to a very disappointing debut season in Manchester for Sterling, who ended the campaign with six league goals and another three in the Champions League, plus two assists in each of the two competitions. Crucially, he didn't work with Dr. Peters at all in a season that saw City end up just scraping into fourth place ahead of their fierce city rivals Manchester United, with whom they were level on points.
The criticism was very real at that point, which was to be expected given the huge transfer fee involved. Making matters worse was the fact that the criticism and poor form followed him into the England camp ahead of the Euro 2016 tournament. He became the target of boos by his own fans as he was seen as a scapegoat for England's latest embarrassment on the international stage.
Peters was in the frame this time, fortunately, and worked with Sterling to try and get him back on track mentally as the England management staff had feared for his state of mind. “He has definitely helped me,” Sterling said at the time. “I have been seeing him here with the national team. Most of the boys do. He just gets it into your head that mentality is key and a strong part of it is blocking certain things out and focusing singularly on your football.”
Under Guardiola this season, Sterling has been doing just that. He has often spoken this season about how confident he feels under the Spaniard and how he has been encouraged to be direct and clinical, to play to his strengths.
“I feel I have more freedom to express myself now. I'm not going to lie about that — I feel much more free. When I get the ball, I have the authority to be myself and try to create chances,” he beamed.
Even his former manager Rodgers took note of how he reverted to his natual game and how he is reaping the results. “He's back now playing as the player that he is. You can see he's being coached and he's playing to what his strengths are,” he said ahead of Celtic's home Champions League meeting with City last September.
In his last seven games in all competitions, he has scored three goals and made four assists – fine form indeed. He still lacks consistency in the final third, however, especially when it comes to his final pass and finishing. Guardiola agrees: “He can be better, especially in the simple things,” he said earlier this week. “Still he makes mistakes in the simple and easy things and when he improves that … Wow! You have to start with the simple things and then work on dribbling the ball, scoring goals, these kind of things. But he has the talent.”
He certainly does, and given his renewed confidence and the fact that he is encouraged to play to his strengths, he is now in with a real chance of reaching his full potential.