MANCHESTER, England — A video did the rounds on social media last week showing Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola giving Raheem Sterling a clinic during a training session about what his body position should be when receiving the ball, about what his next movement should be after giving a pass.
Getting right into Sterling’s face, Guardiola was seen dragging the winger around and pointing exactly how and where he should be addressing the ball. Sterling followed his coach around, listening intently, occasionally nodding his head.
Guardiola sees something special and different in Sterling, and the instructions seem to be getting through.
City has no shortage of potential game-changers in its team but, at the moment, Guardiola wouldn’t want the ball to drop to anyone else but Sterling in the last minutes of a match.
In the past week, the England international has scored winning goals in three straight games, in the 88th, 84th and the sixth minute of injury time. In what is already his career-best haul for a single season of 13 goals — remember, it is not even December — Sterling has scored eight goals in the last 10 minutes of matches.
Four of the goals have been directly responsible for earning City seven points in the league. Without them, the team’s lead would only be a point over Manchester United.
“Before, he was a little bit more shy or he did not believe,” Guardiola said Wednesday after Sterling’s winning goal in injury time in City’s 2-1 victory over Southampton. “But now he can do that.
“I think his teammates give him the confidence and say, ‘We trust in you, you can do that,’ but then you have to have the personality, in the last minute, to make the action.”
Sterling’s goal against Southampton felt huge, and not just in the context of the title race in re-establishing City’s eight-point lead. It caused pandemonium inside Etihad Stadium, with Guardiola, his coaching staff and the substitutes spilling out on to the playing surface as Sterling raced the length of the field in celebration, screaming with joy.
Sterling did something similar at Bournemouth in August, scoring even later — in the seventh minute of injury time — to clinch a 2-1 win. He then raced into City’s away fans to celebrate.
The day after Guardiola’s clinic in that training session, Sterling — with his back to goal — performed a give-and-go move with Ilkay Gundogan before chipping the goalkeeper to seal City’s 1-0 win over Feyenoord in the Champions League.
“Now he’s full of confidence,” Guardiola said. “We spoke last season many times, that he has to discover the pleasure for himself to win games, to score goals. He has to feel that.”
Sterling’s confidence levels cannot have been high when Guardiola joined City in the offseason of 2016. The winger, who joined City for 49 million pounds (then $76 million) the year before, was the target of lots of online criticism during that year’s European Championship. At that tournament, Sterling dubbed himself “The Hated One” on Instagram and he would later stop checking his social media accounts because of the abuse.
Guardiola phoned Sterling during Euro 2016 in a show of support. And this year, when Sterling was linked with a swap deal with Arsenal winger Alexis Sanchez, Guardiola insisted his player would not be leaving.
Sterling is repaying Guardiola’s faith, and is adding an end-product to the chaos he can cause opposing defenses with his pace, directness and movement. He can thank his coach for that.
He is also benefiting from playing in a slightly different position, more of an inside forward now that City has an attacking fullback in Kyle Walker down the right. It means Sterling is in the penalty box more often and getting on the end of more chances.
Next in Sterling’s firing line is West Ham on Sunday, when City will be bidding for a 13th straight win in the Premier League. Its current total of 40 points after 14 games has never been bettered in the history of England’s top division.
Here are some other things to watch out for this weekend:
The best Man United can do is simply keep City in sight, but that won’t be easy over the next two weekends.
On Saturday, United plays at Arsenal, which has won its last three games to climb to fourth place, before the Manchester derby at Old Trafford on Dec. 10.
United is set to be without holding midfielder Nemanja Matic, who went off with a muscle injury in the 4-2 win over Watford on Tuesday.
PAST AND PRESENT
Alan Pardew will begin his tenure as West Bromwich Albion manager with a home match against the club that fired him in December, Crystal Palace.
West Brom hasn’t won in any competition since August — a run of 13 games — and is one place above the relegation zone.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80