Raheem Sterling has conceded that he could not win the fight to change Pep Guardiola’s mind about his diminishing role at Manchester City and had to leave because he felt that there was the possibility of him “wasting time” in his career.
The England international was introduced formally to the media as a Chelsea player at the club’s training ground on Thursday and was asked why he had come to figure less in the big games for City in the last two seasons. Although Sterling still featured regularly for City he also found himself left out of games he would once have started, including just a substitute’s role in both legs of the Champions League semi-final defeat to Real Madrid last season.
He said that he and Guardiola knew the reasons why the player had been marginalised to an extent at City but refused to outline what they were in detail. Sterling, 27, said that the Chelsea move was the ideal alternative to City. There had been interest in him from Chelsea over the last 12 months starting during the previous Roman Abramovich ownership.
He said: “I felt my game time at City was getting limited for different reasons and I couldn't afford to waste more time. When I look back in the future, I never wanted to look back and see a rise then a decline. So my feeling was I needed to keep at the same level and a fresh challenge was needed."
"Since I was 17, I've been a regular starter and to get to the peak time in my career, not to be playing regularly was something I wouldn't accept. My personality is to try to fight and change the scenario but it didn't come and that was it."
Asked later whether he feared his career going into decline he said: “I wouldn’t say a decline. With the game time being limited, like anything, I’m 27 years old and I know my standards and I know what I bring to a team. I wouldn’t accept anything less.”
He would not elaborate on the reasons why he felt Guardiola’s attitude towards him changed: “Me and the manager and the people at the club know exactly what the reasons were,” he said. “I tried to play my football and overcome the situation but it couldn’t be done so I had to move on.”
“It [the diminished role] was a big surprise. It was a massive surprise … a change of events, all of a sudden. It’s something I had to handle and that’s why I’m here.”
Despite his objection to being marginalised, Sterling was still selected by Guardiola for the Champions League final against Chelsea in Porto last year, playing 77 minutes before his substitution. Nevertheless, the data does bear out his assertion that he was playing a smaller role in the biggest European games at City.
In the 2018-2019 season he played every minute of the four games over two rounds that City played in the competition. The following season that average fell to 65 minutes; then 35 minutes in 2020-2021and 50 minutes last season.
Overall, Sterling’s remarkable consistency meant that he never featured in fewer than 46 games across a season for seven years straight at City. That said, his match-time minutes were down this season - 3,088 over 47 games. Previous to that under Guardiola his lowest total had been 3,567 minutes in the 2017-2018 season and his highest, the following year was in excess of 4,000.
Sterling also addressed the infamous incident at Stamford Bridge in 2018 when television cameras caught him being racially abused by Chelsea fans in the Matthew Harding Stand. The fan in question, who was banned by the club for life, always claimed that he called Sterling a “Manc c---” rather than making a reference to his race. The incident was followed by Sterling addressing contrasting media depictions of black and white footballers and opened a new debate on racial prejudice.
Sterling said that the incident itself had not come into his thinking when he was considering joining Chelsea although he did acknowledge that the Instagram post that he made in the aftermath had given him a position on the debate on race that he welcomed.
“Yeah, I think that conversation opened the door for me personally, in the sense where it made me understand what my true purpose is other than football. Of course, football is my main goal and talent but the other thing that gives me the most joy … that’s helping people. So from that incident, I’ve moved away from the racial side of it and focussed more on helping and nurturing young black people.”
Asked about the suggestion made by Stan Collymore that Sterling could even meet with and educate the banned Chelsea fan concerned, the player said he was not against the idea. “I have no hatred or malice towards the individual. That’s something that I could do right here, right now, or tomorrow. That’s not an issue.
“I think my main focus is to move away from the racial kind of thing and focus more on nurturing and feeding the youth, like myself growing up, and giving them a map to the world that lies ahead. [To] show them that they can manifest a lot of stuff if they just put the time in and look after themselves.”
Sterling said that Thomas Tuchel had praised his “directness” and his willingness to run in behind defences. “Most importantly it's how I attack the box, and with the full-backs that we have here he said that's the one thing he wants to see a lot more.” He said that while both Tuchel and Guardiola put the emphasis on possession the playing styles they sought to impose were “completely different”.
“It's two different systems, two different playing styles. We do a lot of possession here, City do a lot of possession … they both want different things. I'm adjusting really well here. It's the honeymoon period now, but it's like when you're really optimistic about something and dream for something - that's where I am.”