Pep Guardiola insists Raheem Sterling is only out of the Manchester City side due to the “incredible, incredible, incredible top form” of Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden.
Sterling has been a key performer throughout the Guardiola era at the Etihad Stadium but a scoreless outing in last month’s 2-0 FA Cup quarter-final win at Everton stands as his only start in City’s past six matches across all competitions.
He was in the first XI for all three of England’s World Cup qualifiers during the recent international break, scoring against San Marino.
The 26-year-old was back to a substitute’s role when the Premier League leaders took on Leicester City last weekend before failing to feature in the 2-1 Champions League quarter-final win over Borussia Dortmund.
Sterling might have the chance to press his claims once again when City host Leeds United on Saturday, with Guardiola expected to ring the changes.
Both men denied a reported bust-up in the aftermath of last month’s Manchester derby defeat and the City manager insists the form of midweek matchwinner Foden and Mahrez – who was named PFA Premier League Player of the Month for March on Friday – is what has forced his hand.
Congratulations to @Mahrez22
— Professional Footballers’ Association (@PFA) April 9, 2021
“Raheem has been so important in our period here since we arrived, nothing would have been possible without him,” he said.
“Right now, I decided because I see Riyad and Phil in incredible, incredible, incredible top form. This is the only reason why, there is not another one.
“Phil, you see the last 30 minutes he played against Dortmund, he created all the chances that we had [after] 1-0, he scored the last goal with an incredible control and assist from Gundo [Ilkay Gundogan].
“And Riyad, the last month always has been so decisive, so this is the only reason why.
“He’s important for the team and the club, there’s no doubt about that. That was the reason for the selection.”
Mahrez and Foden more creative
Since the turn of the year, during which time City have won 24 of 25 games across all competitions, Sterling has started 15 matches compared to 16 apiece for Mahrez and Foden.
Foden leads the way with 1,480 minutes, to 1,312 for his England counterpart and 1,462 for the Algeria international.
Despite missing a couple of gilt-edged chances before his winner, Foden’s eye for goal has been a notable feature of City’s campaign, and his seven goals for 2021 is more than Mahrez (five), who is outscored by Sterling (six) over the period in question.
However, operating nominally as wide forwards, Foden (38) and Mahrez (34) have created considerably more chances than Sterling (19) this calendar year and are second only to Kevin De Bruyne (44) in the City squad. That output has yielded six assists for Mahrez, five for Foden – level with De Bruyne – and three for Sterling.
Mahrez’s 47 crosses from open play are more than any other City player in 2021, with Foden’s 28 coming in behind De Bruyne (34) and Joao Cancelo (33). Sterling is back on 13, with one completed.
The former Liverpool man’s dribbling prowess remains to the fore, with the most attempted (79) and completed (38) among his team-mates during this period. Mahrez boasts an impressive dribble success rate of 55 per cent thanks to 33 out of 60, while Foden has completed 26 of 53 after tormenting Dortmund at times.
Semis booked pic.twitter.com/2Sb2gENZ50
— Raheem Sterling (@sterling7) March 20, 2021
Looking after the ball
This season, Guardiola’s City have often seemed to play in a more controlled fashion and the manager underlined the importance of retaining possession in all areas of the field.
“There are players who are incredible to make movements in behind, runs in behind and there are others who have the quality to not lose the ball in any circumstances,” he said.
“They are good at keeping the ball and sometimes, in some games, we need this more than the other situations.
“Some players suit better the way we have to play than the other ones, just for the skills, not being on bad form or whatever.”
While acknowledging Sterling, Foden and Mahrez are each very well-rounded attackers, Sterling’s forte lies more with the piercing runs in behind that Guardiola identifies.
Mahrez and Foden – as you might expect for a player who came through City’s ranks as a central midfielder – tend to be a little more reliable in possession and this could further explain Guardiola’s recent thinking.
20 – Aged 20 years & 313 days, Phil Foden is the youngest Englishman to score a 90th minute winning goal in a Champions League match, overtaking Wayne Rooney who was 21 years & 182 days when he scored the winner for Man Utd in a 3-2 in over Milan in April 2007. Decisive. pic.twitter.com/ctdsdTyVYy
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 6, 2021
Creative attacking players generally rack up more instances of possession lost due to the kind of passes and dribbles they attempt, so a good measure of how well they use the ball is to calculate their giveaways as a percentage of their overall touches.
In 2021, 1,067 touches and 202 instances of giving away possession amounts to 18.9 per cent for Mahrez, making him the most judicious of the trio.
Foden has lost possession 221 times from 1,008 touches (21.9 per cent) but Sterling’s percentage is a little higher at 22.3 despite only 883 touches (possession lost 197 times).
This aspect might not be to the fore if Saturday’s showdown with Leeds is similarly chaotic to October’s 1-1 draw at Elland Road, but it is perhaps the desire for elusive Champions League glory that has persuaded Guardiola to seek greater control, leaving Foden and Mahrez as his go-to men and Sterling with unfamiliar work to do.
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