He had scored his first Premier League goal at 17, made his England debut the following month and by the time Guardiola rocked up at the Etihad Stadium he had already played over a century of games in the top-flight.
But Sterling was in danger of drifting. After a £44million move from Liverpool in 2015, he scored just six league goals in his debut City season and was one of England’s worst performers in their disastrous Euro 2016 campaign.
Raheem Sterling signed for Manchester City in a £44million deal from Liverpool six years ago
Pep Guardiola has transformed Sterling from a raw, pacy winger to a potent goalscorer
It was too soon to call him a flop, but Liverpool fans were certainly feeling they had got the better end of the transfer.
Six years on, Sterling has won four league trophies with City, beating the Reds in a title race on two occasions. He is a potent attacking threat and first choice for England. That’s down to Guardiola.
No-one epitomises the Spaniard’s time at City more than Sterling. For starters, he is one of only two players – along with Kevin De Bruyne – who was in the squad that Guardiola inherited from Manuel Pellegrini. In his entire managerial career, Guardiola has used Sterling on more occasions than any other player (292).
But the forward has also been transformed under his tutelage. Detractors say that Guardiola’s time at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City has been easy because he has worked with the world’s best players and has had lavish transfer budgets at his disposal. But Sterling is a shining example of Guardiola’s coaching in action.
Sterling has been an important part of City’s dominance in recent years under Guardiola
The 27-year-old has also impressed for England under manager Gareth Southgate
He is now a reliable goalscorer and a player defined by so much more than just his pace. Guardiola urged Sterling to operate closer to the penalty area, constantly creating a goal threat by becoming a six-yard box predator. He told him he was slowing the game down by stopping the ball as he controlled it, when he should have been opening his body up and using his acceleration to drive the team forward.
Sterling listened, learned and the results are in his numbers. He has hit double figures for Premier League goals in the last five seasons and netted 31 in all competitions in 2019-20. When he struck against Sporting Lisbon in February, his 127th goal for City, he moved into the top 10 of the club’s all-time top scorers.
Yet it is hard to ignore that in recent campaigns, something has seemed slightly amiss and Guardiola appears a little stuck in quite how best to use Sterling. Riyad Mahrez has come to prominence on the right-hand side, while Phil Foden and Jack Grealish are locked in their own battle to start on the left. City’s lack of a traditional centre forward has seen Sterling trialled as a false nine but he has not fitted the bill as well as Foden or De Bruyne.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly why Sterling’s form has dipped, particularly as his England performances have been better than ever in the last couple of years. City fans have become increasingly frustrated by the 27-year-old, who is capable of making key contributions but has also tended to go missing for periods too.
The forward ranks in the top 10 of Manchester City’s all-time record goalscorers
But Guardiola has been losing faith in him in recent seasons and not started him in big games
A case in point came last season when Sterling scored five goals in four league games in December before netting in just one of the next 11 matches, albeit a hat-trick against Norwich.
Guardiola started Sterling in only two of the first 11 league fixtures of 2021-22 and while the forward won his spot back back during his winter purple patch, he was out of favour again by the end of the campaign.
Despite his experience, he wasn’t trusted to start either of the Champions League semi-final legs against Real Madrid and he failed to make the XI for City’s last two Premier League games as they battled for the title.
The forward pushed to leave City last summer and a move to Barcelona looked on the cards before interest from the Spanish club cooled. After an underwhelming season on a personal level, Sterling is now being linked to Chelsea and Real Madrid.
He is in his theoretical prime at 27 years old and does not want to be sitting on the bench. That’s without mentioning the need to be playing games and being in form ahead of the World Cup in November.
The England international is a four-time Premier League title winner at the Etihad Stadium
A move to Chelsea or Real Madrid could be on the cards for Sterling after a frustrating season
There are no places for wingers in Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea team, so he would likely be used as a number 10 or a false nine, but in a different way to at City. Yet if the Blues go in search of a like-for-like replacement for Inter Milan-bound Romelu Lukaku, it’s hard to see quite where Sterling fits amid competition from Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount.
There may be more of an opening in Madrid, where Florentino Perez will surely not let the summer pass by without making a statement attacking signing after being snubbed by Kylian Mbappe.
In addition, no player managed to nail down the right-wing spot in Carlo Ancelotti’s team last season. Gareth Bale is gone and Marco Asensio could soon follow, Eden Hazard’s struggles continue and Rodrygo is still only 21 and managed just four league goals last season. Federico Valverde, who started the Champions League final on that flank, is better deployed as a central midfielder.
Thomas Tuchel does not use wingers at Chelsea so Sterling would likely be used as a false nine
At City, there is perhaps a chance that the arrival of Erling Haaland may help Sterling’s prospects. There is no longer the need for Guardiola to shoehorn him into the false nine position and being able to play on the right of a more conventional front three could bring the best out of him again.
But he may not wait around to see if that’s how it pans out, particularly as competition from Mahrez, Foden and Grealish remains.
If he does bring his six-year spell at the Etihad to a close, there is no doubt that Sterling will go down as a City legend. This is the club’s greatest ever era and he has been one of the key figures in a team that has won four Premier League titles, four League Cups and the FA Cup.
It makes Sterling one of the most trophy-laden English players of his generation, but he will feel is capable of winning even more. The Champions League still eludes him and City – perhaps a move to the competition’s greatest ever club will solve that particular problem.