In the end, Raheem Sterling was granted his wish. In the same week the England international floated the possibility of leaving Man City amid a lack of game time, Pep Guardiola handed him a start against Burnley.
Although not overtly, Guardiola will have viewed this game as one in which his team could fill their pockets. City had netted 27 goals in their last six games against the Clarets, winning 5-0 in each of their last four meetings at the Etihad Stadium.
Those statistics meant it was an opportunity for many to impress. John Stones came back into the side for his first start to the season, but the biggest storyline was Sterling’s inclusion as a centre forward.
Phil Foden seemed the natural replacement for Ferran Torres – the Spain international is set to miss two to three months with an injury – given his ability to operate in tight areas inside the penalty box. As a consequence, it seemed a huge leap of faith from Guardiola to start with the Englishman in the forward line.
That trust was not repaid.
Sterling struggled to influence the game as Man City controlled proceedings – albeit in a laboured fashion. He fired over from a Riyad Mahrez cross in the closest he came to threatening the Burnley goal all afternoon.
It spoke volumes when City re-emerged for the second half with Sterling occupying a left wing role while Foden was entrusted to replace the England international as the central striker. Guardiola felt he could gain greater thrust in the attacking third if his side were able to pivot around the technical excellence of Foden, instead of persisting with Sterling in one of those performances where the ball seemed to move everywhere he wasn’t.
Many will rightly underline that the Englishman was playing out of position, and that when he revealed earlier this week that he was disappointed at his lack of game time he was referring to operating as a true winger. However, Sterling knows the terrain at Man City; to play in a Guardiola side, especially in the absence of a true number nine to pivot around, you have to be comfortable in an array of positions.
The brutal reality is that City have surpassed the need for Sterling. The Englishman is at his best running onto play, often popping up in dangerous positions at the far post to score. It explains why his best moments in Manchester came when he was operating in tandem with Leroy Sane, often adding the finishing touch to the perfect City cut-back goal. In the absence of a centre forward in this current City side, Sterling’s weaknesses are magnified.
An interesting comparison can be found within the City squad currently. Bernardo Silva was reportedly casting his eye towards the exit door in the summer, coming off a slightly disappointing campaign last time out as the Citizens suffered heartbreak in the Champions League. However, few will now challenge the assertion that the Portugal international has been City’s best player this campaign, and he was the standout performer for the home side again in the 2-0 victory over Burnley.
Silva’s technical excellence, and his improvement in ball retention this season, means he’s now an indispensable figure under Guardiola. Sterling, meanwhile, feels like an awkward fit.
“If I want happiness at a certain level I need to be playing football. I need to be scoring goals and enjoying myself,” Sterling remarked this week. Given an opportunity against a vulnerable opponent, the Englishman fluffed his lines.