Seventeen Premier League goals last season, three in one game already this term – Raheem Sterling looks all set for another stellar year.
The Manchester City forward had a standout campaign in 2018-19, being named the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year, the PFA Young Player of the Year and making it into the PFA Team of the Year as his goals helped his team win the Premier League for the second successive year in a treble-winning season.
He has also developed into a key player for Gareth Southgate’s England, has been lauded as “special” by his club manager Pep Guardiola and, at 24, his best years are still ahead of him.
On BBC Radio 5 Live’s Monday Night Club, the question was asked whether Sterling could have a season that Lionel Messi – the five-time Ballon d’Or winner and regular scorer of 30+ goals per season – would be proud of.
On a similar career trajectory to Messi?
Sterling scored 25 goals in all competitions last season – his highest in a single campaign – and he picked up from where he left off by bagging a hat-trick in City’s 4-1 season-opening win at West Ham on Saturday.
At 24 years and 245 days – the age Sterling was at the point of the Hammers game – he had played a remarkably similar amount of football to Messi when the Argentina international was the same age.
|Sterling and Messi at 24 years and 245 days – how their stats compare|
|Senior club appearances only|
The difference between the amount of assists each player had provided at that stage of their career is not vast – 90 for Messi compared to 68 for Sterling – but it is Messi’s goalscoring prowess that sets him apart.
While 25 was a career-high for Sterling, Messi’s lowest total in the past 11 seasons is 38.
For Sterling to exist in such elevated company, his numbers will need to improve significantly.
“Raheem Sterling is getting better,” former Arsenal striker Ian Wright told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“He is so intelligent in the way he is playing with the runs he is making, and his finishing is clinical.
“You can easily see someone like Raheem ending up with 35-40 goals this season because of the way he is playing, the chances Manchester City make and the way he is finishing.”
Can Guardiola elevate Sterling to Messi’s level?
When Manchester City signed Sterling from Liverpool in 2015 for £49m, he became the most expensive English player.
That price tag came with a lot of pressure for a 20-year-old and so perhaps it was not surprising that Sterling was unable to make the immediate impact he would have wanted.
One person who never doubted him was City manager Guardiola.
In the summer of 2016 when Sterling was enduring a difficult European Championships, in which he got substituted at half-time for England against Wales following a poor 45 minutes, a text message popped up on his phone.
It read: “Don’t worry, I know you’re a good player. As long as you work for me, I’ll fight for you.”
The message was from his new club manager, who had identified Sterling as a player with the potential to become one of the world’s best.
There are signs that Guardiola believes he can unlock the world-class potential in a similar way he did with Messi.
In only his second season working with Guardiola, Sterling scored 23 goals – more than double what he had managed in any of his previous six seasons in professional football.
Like Sterling, Messi’s goal-scoring record before playing under Guardiola was solid but not spectacular – he scored 16 times in the 2007-08 season.
But the following campaign – Guardiola’s first as Barcelona boss – he more than doubled that tally, scoring 38 goals.
That improvement coincided with Guardiola deploying Messi in a centre-forward role and he similarly played Sterling down the middle in a pre-season in which Sterling hit five goals in five games.
“With a manager like Pep, there will be no resting for him,” added Wright.
“He has worked very hard and the confidence is flowing because of what he has been doing in training.
“He would now be disappointed by scoring three goals and missing one because that is what he is about now, it’s all about getting the numbers up.”
‘A nightmare to play against’
While Guardiola’s coaching has undoubtedly helped improve Sterling, just as crucial to his improvement is the player’s mental strength.
The forward has had to endure plenty of criticism in his career so far, from the stands and in the media, but has managed to shut all that out to focus on improving as a player and proving those critics wrong.
West Ham midfielder Jack Wilshere has played alongside Sterling for England but was up against his international team-mate on Saturday.
“I thought he was brilliant [on Saturday] and he was brilliant last year,” said Wilshere. “It shows what type of character he is to come through [the 2014 World Cup] and to be one of the best players in the league last year.
“He’s started well this season. He’s a nightmare to play against. You don’t know if he’s going to come inside and he’s so sharp off the mark.
“I’m not happy he scored a hat-trick but hopefully he can do well this season.”