Michael Jordan liked to talk about the shots he missed in his career: nine thousand of them in total, and over time a source of constant ignition, fathers to all his other triumphs. You failed. No matter. Fail better. Or in this case, trample everyone else into the boards in the gaps in between.
Which is all very well, but it seems safe to say none of those misses were free headers in front of the Anfield Kop at 4.39pm on a damp November Sunday afternoon, already 1-0 down, and with an obligation to get up off the turf and trot towards halfway while pretending not to hear 20,000 people offering gleefully unfavourable observations about your historic life choices.
Welcome to a day, a fixture, a year in the life of Raheem Sterling, for whom Manchester City versus Liverpool remains a peculiar kind of trauma. One of the strange pleasures of football in lockdown is the constant surprise, in replays or YouTube clips, at the power of a sporting crowd.
When Manchester City and Liverpool walk out at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday it will be almost exactly a year to the day since last season’s reverse fixture, a 3-1 Liverpool victory that would in effect clarify the trajectory of the Premier League title race; and an occasion notable mainly for the febrile mood of the stadium crowd.
This was football as eviscerating public theatre. Half an hour in Pep Guardiola could be seen capering wildly on the touchline, arms spread like a demented frontier preacher, consumed by the weird shared energy of a stadium he had already begun referring to as “that place”. Plus, of course, there was Sterling, for whom these encounters remain an unscabbed wound, albeit one he continues to confront head on.
A few moments after that missed header the game was all but decided by Liverpool’s wonderful second goal, an architectural three-point zig-zag from right-back to left-back to right winger, then back across with a zing into the top corner of the net. It was a moment that seemed to set up the rest of the afternoon up as a kind of self-contained Sterling mini-drama.
There were stubbed chances and defiant dribbles, played out to a soundtrack of skirling jeers and boos. Finally there was the scuffle with Joe Gomez that would spill over into a canteen dust-up on England duty a few days later, a coming together that both men, for all the conciliatory words, will re-engage with this weekend.
Sterling just kept on running forward that day, leading even in defeat. Just as he will on Sunday afternoon, installed in a time of retrenchment as the undisputed leader of Guardiola’s attack.
It is a role City need him to play. There is a popular assumption Guardiola is above all an attacking coach, driven by headline talk of goals scored and wonderful attacking talents coached. The tactical counterpoint to this is that Guardiola’s first thought is essentially defensive, his chief obsession controlling the ball and constricting the opposition.
Guardiola’s real fetish is for midfielders and hyper-mobile full backs. At times he can even seem a little cold on the other stuff poachers, dribblers, assist merchants. This week City’s manager suggested the club simply couldn’t afford to buy a centre forward this summer. Still, £100m has been spent on Nathan Aké and João Cancelo in the last year, over-stocking the key role of utility defender-midfielder.
In that time Chelsea have bought Timo Werner and Liverpool Diogo Jota for around the same amount as the worthy, but currently benched Aké. Hence the feeling of mild entropy in attack. City are good enough to have taken more shots than anyone else from outside the box in the Premier League this season. But they are also currently 10th when it comes to shots inside the six-yard box, a table City habitually top.
Injuries to their two specialist centre forwards have of course been key. But drill down into who’s doing what right now and Sterling stands out as having maintained his levels: only two goals so far, but still most shots, most dribbles, most tackles, most interceptions. Take him out and the threat looks hugely diminished.
Sterling-dependencia: this is to overstate the case. But it is still a significant shift from the early Pep days when City’s new manager was moved at one point to paint a chalk spot on the training pitch and literally instruct Sterling to stand there during periods out of possession.
The ability to suck this up, to swallow the misses, to keep coming back, has been key to Sterling’s altered status. The initial goal for City’s coaching staff was for Sterling to “miss two big chances” every game. “We wanted him much closer to the penalty area. It was like he was afraid of the goal,” Mikel Arteta said. More misses, more chances, more goals: the Jordan dynamic in miniature.
Sterling is vital in other ways too. His gathering influence across those five years, the shift from straight-line winger to a dynamo of half-turns and deep spins can disguise the fact City’s attacking recruitment has been relatively poor.
Since the summer of Sterling’s arrival City have spent around £200m in transfer fees on seven other attackers. Only one, Riyad Mahrez, has become a first choice starter. Three have left the club. None has come close to an upgrade on the players already at the club in Sterling’s first season.
By contrast his old club have recruited with targeted success in attack. Roberto Firmino arrived the same summer Sterling left, Sadio Mané the year after, Mo Salah the year after that. It is an intriguing thought, and not one that sits alongside a gleefully scathing Anfield in November, but in isolation Sterling’s transfer from Liverpool looks like a good move for all concerned: well-sourced replacements on one side; Sterling’s progress at City on the other.
This fixture remains an unbroken frontier, a constant test of that will to bounce back up, to swallow the cuts and the misses. Sterling has lost seven, drawn four and won twice against Liverpool since he left. In March 2016 he was jeered off at half time in a 3-0 win that all-but terminated any hope of progress under Manuel Pellegrini. The trauma of Anfield, April 2018 killed his best chance to date of winning the Champions League.
Even in a fine season personally last November’s trauma left its mark. Going into that game Sterling was flying. The four-month spell from Anfield to lockdown was his poorest scoring run in two years. Sunday might not be the day to reverse that trend, although City do have Gabriel Jesus back, not to mention a run of five clean sheets in eight games. What does seem certain is that Sterling will keep running, keep missing, keep bouncing up again.