MANCHESTER, United Kingdom, Nov 4 – Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola insisted there was still room for improvement from Raheem Sterling after the forward’s astonishing performance in a 6-1 win over Southampton that returned his team to the top of the Premier League.
The defending champions remain on course to better last season’s record-breaking tally of 106 goals after another emphatic display that leaves them with a plus-29 goal difference just 11 games into the new campaign.
Sterling was the pick of the attacking talents during Sunday’s match at the Etihad Stadium, scoring two goals and providing three assists as City raced into a 3-0 lead inside 18 minutes.
“He is a top player but still he is so young to be considered the world’s best,” said Guardiola when asked to rank Sterling among the game’s current leading players.
“He is in incredible form, he is sharp, fast, clever, fighting, decisive, he can play both sides and can play in the middle and receive the ball between the lines and commit the centre-banks with a lot of aggression.
His performance means Sterling has now been directly involved in 40 league goals — scoring 24 times and making 16 assists — since the start of last season, and Sunday’s was a timely individual display given that the 23-year-old England forward this week agreed a new five-year contract with the club, worth a reported £300,000 a week.
“It was an incredible performance but still with the young guys like him and Leroy (Sane) I would feel he can improve,” added Guardiola.
“Still, he loses simple balls, like the Tottenham game when he made an amazing assist in the first few minutes but then lost a lot of balls.”
Wesley Hoedt turned Sane’s sixth-minute cross into his own goal before Sterling laid on the first of his assists, crossing for Sergio Aguero to claim the 150th Premier League goal of his career — putting the Argentine equal-eighth with Michael Owen in the division’s all-time goalscoring list.
– ‘Difference in his head’ –
Sterling crossed for David Silva to volley in number three and, after Ederson’s foul on Danny Ings allowed the Southampton forward to score from the penalty spot, Sterling scored in first half injury-time after Aguero gamely kept a loose ball in play.
Aguero set up Sterling for the fifth, from a wide angle, in the 66th minute and Sane completed the rout in the dying seconds from 18 yards after Sterling’s third assist.
It was a devastating display from Sterling, who only managed to score seven league goals in 2016/17, Guardiola’s first season in charge.
“The difference is in his head,” said Guardiola. “The first season, he was scared, he was looking, who is the guy I am going to pass the ball to?
“He was not looking where the keeper was. We spoke about that and said try to score goals, it doesn’t matter if you miss it, be aggressive.
“I have the feeling he is now enjoying scoring goals and making assists. He is becoming a winning player. He is stable and is focused on what he has to do to become a better player.”
Ever the perfectionist, Guardiola still saw enough to demand improvements.
“Of course, the way we played the first 20 minutes, yes,” said the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager when asked if City’s title rivals would be frightened by the latest victory.
“But the team sent me some signals today that in some positions, some actions, we are not stable enough.
“But it is good. Improving after winning is so much easier than improving after losing!”
It was a view with which Southampton manager Mark Hughes, winner of just four of his 19 league games in charge of the south coast side, would doubtless agree.
“We were more than a little bit too passive defensively,” said Hughes.
“This game isn’t going to define our season and we need to make sure we are better when we play teams that aren’t as good as City.”