Criticism continues for Raheem Sterling but his performances deserve more credit, writes Adam Bate.
We are now accustomed to his private life being mysteriously pored over and have long since got used to the bewildering boos that greet his every touch at away grounds. But now even the efforts of team-mates have become a stick with which to beat Raheem Sterling.
Social media was alive with suggestions that Leroy Sane is "miles ahead" of Sterling after his performance at Sunderland. Seemingly the customary way of praising the German is to denigrate the chap on the other wing who just happened to set up the game's opening goal.
Perhaps such churlishness is to be expected when a player walks away from one of the two best supported sides in the country to join the main rivals of the other one. But it has contributed to a situation whereby one of England's top young talents feels underrated.
That might seem incongruous when discussing a £49m international player but how else to explain the constant flow of criticism levelled at a 22-year-old winger who has scored three goals and set up four more in his last seven appearances alone.
There is much to admire. After plateauing a little in 2016, he appears to have embraced Pep Guardiola's demand for greater intensity and has emerged as a key figure in leading the Manchester City attack. His performances are certainly trending in the right direction.
He is on course for the best goalscoring season of his career with more assists than ever before too. Dribbles, touches and distance covered stats are all up. The question over Sterling was whether he could continue to improve but that's exactly what he is doing.
"I watch players to get better," Sterling himself said earlier this season. "I'm only 22 and I'm going to watch world-class players to see if I can improve my game week in, week out. There's many players in my position I watch, and to keep adding to my game.
"I know I can still get better. It's about me enjoying my football, learning each day at training. I just need to show it on the pitch. I can't keep talking about it but have to do it. I need to express myself and that's what I'm trying to do."
Sterling tops the Manchester City dribbling statistics for the season
The age thing is important. Wednesday's game against Stoke will be his 150th Premier League appearance. As a result, it can sometimes feel as though Sterling has been around for an awfully long time and should be judged accordingly.
However, the list of players of his age making such an impact is a short one. Sterling's total of six goals and five assists puts him in good company. Dele Alli is the only player aged under 23 who has been directly involved in more Premier League goals this season.
On the continent the story is much the same. In fact, there is not a single player aged 22 or younger in La Liga who has been directly involved in 10 goals or more this season. Sterling is still well ahead of his peers.
That might help to put his performances in context and explain why the CIES Football Observatory recently calculated Sterling's value at £75m - or 13th in the world. If that is not definitive enough then Guardiola's faith in the young man should be an even bigger clue.
Against the backdrop of a fan petition calling for the player to be sent home from Euro 2016, the Manchester City coach phoned Sterling to reassure him that he was part of his plans. Guardiola knows that what Sterling brings is unusual.
That dainty running style coupled with a lack of power in his shooting can perplex critics but it is Sterling's ability to square up defenders in one-on-one situations that is special. There is a calmness to his work when negotiating obstacles in the final third that is not normal.
"We need this guy for one against one," said Guardiola earlier in the season, recognising the importance of isolating Sterling against his marker. Much of the focus is on Manchester City creating overloads on the pitch that do just this.
"He can play more narrow, he can do that," the coach explained. "Sometimes I say to him, 'You need to play wide, wide, wide and stay there and make action one against one'. When he does that, it's difficult for him to get into the box."
Sterling has had more touches in the opposition box than any other City player
But he is now doing that too. Sterling has had 190 touches in the opposition area, far more than any other City player. Indeed, only Zlatan Ibrahimovic can beat that total and even then only by six despite spending 269 more minutes on the pitch than the young winger.
Sterling is getting into dangerous areas. Now it's about making it count. "He has told me to be direct, to be the player he knows I want to be," said Sterling of Guardiola. "To be direct, to be involved in creating chances and scoring goals, be clinical. That's what I need to do."
It is going well so far. Sterling has the pace and the skill. He also has the belief of a coach with interesting ideas and is playing in a team full of talent. Not everyone will enjoy the blossoming of Raheem Sterling. The good news is that he's already shown it won't stop him.
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