Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has a big problem on the horizon with Raheem Sterling failing to impress in his audition as a false nine in the 2-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain
City dominated the majority of the game but fell behind to a pin-point strike from ex-Everton man Idrissa Gueye.
A moment of magic from Guardiola’s old Barcelona chum – and ex-City transfer target – Lionel Messi was enough to condemn City to their first defeat in the Champions League group stage since their 2-1 loss to Lyon in 2018.
It’s a result that comes just days after Guardiola pulled off a tactical masterclass against Chelsea.
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But despite an impressive display, it’s one that has highlighted a potential issue for the Etihad boss.
Much has been made of City’s failure to sign an elite striker this past summer.
But there’s another problem brewing for Guardiola beyond that number nine berth.
Just a couple of months ago, Raheem Sterling was the toast of the country after playing a starring role in Euro 2020.
The ex-Liverpool star was England’s main man in their run to final, despite his spot in the team looking uncertain heading into the tournament.
But he’s now a fight to salvage his club career after reigniting his international one.
Guardiola’s preference to play without a recognised striker is now renowned.
And there are players, such as Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus – who may not have the same impact that Sergio Aguero had for City in the past, but can still be effective in that role.
However, Sterling isn’t one of them.
Where does Raheem Sterling’s future lie – can he be a successful striker? Comment below.
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Sterling’s 32 touches were the fewest of any outfield starter for City, and he failed to find the target with his two attempts on goal. He arguably should have done better with his header that hit the crossbar – but at the same time, that isn’t his game. At all.
It’s not the first time Guardiola has deployed him as a false nine, and it may not be the last.
But he quite clearly isn’t a natural fit in a role that both Torres and Jesus have looked far more comfortable in the past – and delivered adequate results, too.
And that is going to leave Guardiola with potentially an even bigger dilemma.
Jack Grealish has started every one of City’s Premier League games this term on the left – the same spot that Sterling – a world-class winger – excelled in for the majority of England’s Euro 2020 campaign.
After smashing the British transfer record to seal a £100m deal for Grealish, it’s very unlikely that he’s not going to be afforded the majority of minutes in his favored spot.
And then there’s Phil Foden – the one man who should be immune from the infamous ‘Pep roulette’ following his return from injury.
Foden has been Guardiola’s most guarded project since his arrival at the Etihad – and has even been labelled “unsellable”.
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“We didn’t give Foden a new contract by accident,” Guardiola said in a serialisation of a book called ‘Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam. “He is the only player that can’t be sold under any circumstances, the only one. Not even for €500m.
“Phil’s going nowhere. Phil is City. We won’t be signing anyone else for that position. When David Silva leaves, we know exactly who our new magician will be.
“He’s grown up with us. He’s one of us and he’s going to be brilliant – one of the Premier League’s best.”
Since making those comments, Foden has now come of age for this City side.
There has been talk of Guardiola attempting to remould Foden into a central midfielder in the wake of Grealish’s arrival, and he was deployed as a false nine during City’s win at Chelsea last Saturday.
Sterling may have outdone Foden on England duty this summer, but Foden is undeniably City’s future – he shouldn’t face being relocated for anyone.
Perhaps Guardiola knows that, and perhaps that’s why Sterling is being assigned to a role that he just isn’t suitable for. The idea of dropping Sterling would be shocking to most City fans.
Where that leaves his City career in the long-term is anyone’s guess – and that’s harsh on a player that lit up the international stage for England just a matter of weeks ago.