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pep in his step How Raheem Sterling’s instincts have become one with Pep Guardiola’s instructions at Man City

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Manchester City's Raheem Sterling celebrates scoring his side's fourth goal to complete his hat-trick against Norwich on Saturday. Photo: Action Images via Reuters

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling celebrates scoring his side's fourth goal to complete his hat-trick against Norwich on Saturday. Photo: Action Images via Reuters

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling celebrates scoring his side's fourth goal to complete his hat-trick against Norwich on Saturday. Photo: Action Images via Reuters

How to read Pep Guardiola’s comment that Raheem Sterling is at his best when he plays “without thinking”? Is he suggesting the Manchester City winger is most dangerous when he follows his instincts on the pitch, or when he unswervingly sticks to the game plan that has been drilled into him so effectively during Guardiola’s tenure?

Perhaps these days they are the same thing. After more than five years with Guardiola, playing the same role in the same meticulously choreographed system, it seems entirely possible that Sterling has become so conditioned to the patterns of play that his footballing instincts have become one with his manager’s instructions.

Do not overthink it, Raheem. Just follow the plan and the results will come. There is an almost mechanical brilliance to Sterling in this form, when everyone in the stadium knows what he is going to do, but he is so good at it that nothing can stop him.

Sterling’s hat-trick against Norwich City was pure efficiency (aside from requiring a second attempt at his penalty after his initial effort was saved), and in this form he embodies the ruthless nature of Guardiola’s side.

He required just one half-mistake from the Norwich defence, with Max Aarons miscuing a clearance, to give City the lead, curling home from the left-hand channel in which he does so much of his best work.

After a difficult start to the campaign, Sterling has started 12 of the past 14 league matches for City. He has contributed a combined 15 goals and assists for Guardiola’s side, a tally bettered only by Riyad Mahrez this season, and again looks to be fitting seamlessly into one of the great footballing systems in the history of the English game.

Sterling is so finely attuned to the Guardiola approach that it is increasingly hard to imagine him playing his club football in any other place, or any other system. He said last year that he would be open to leaving City and would consider moving abroad, with his contract due to expire at the end of next season, but he is now reinstalled as a key member of the team and a change of clubs appears less likely.

It would, though, be curious to see what sort of player would emerge at another team. Would the Sterling of Barcelona or Real, for example, be a different proposition to the one who has been so devastating for so many years with Guardiola?

There is certainly a difference between the Sterling of City and the Sterling of England. With his country, he can often be seen receiving possession in deep areas before weaving through opposition players and creating chances.

He appears to have more freedom in an England shirt, and at last summer’s Euros there were moments when he looked more like the player of his Liverpool days than the one we see at City.

This is not to say that Sterling cannot express himself at City. As he showed against Norwich on Saturday, he does so every game. But Guardiola’s position-based system means that expression comes with limitations: Sterling must still be in the right position at the right time, and cannot roam as freely as he does with England. Jack Grealish has learnt this, in an underwhelming first season.

For now Sterling appears, once again, to be more than happy with his role at City. Guardiola knows him, and Sterling knows precisely how to operate within the Spaniard’s framework. When it clicks, there are few players who are more devastating.

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