It’s rare for a player to move between two big Premier League clubs in his prime – and rarer still for such a move to be met with such ambivalence. Why is Raheem Sterling’s proposed move from Manchester City to Chelsea viewed this way?
Chelsea and Manchester City are in advanced talks over a deal for Raheem Sterling, who has agreed personal terms with the west London club. Thomas Tuchel is determined to add the England winger to his attacking options.
City fans seem relaxed about his future. That’s surprising considering Sterling has averaged 22 goals for the club over the past five seasons. Only Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero – just four ahead – have scored more goals under Pep Guardiola.
But Chelsea fans don’t greet the reports with joy either. Sterling is 27 and has shown he can thrive in any top-three position. What does it tell us about how the player is perceived that he is not announced as a major move?
This suggests that Sterling is seriously underrated.
Many theories have been put forward as to why this might be the case. Given that Sterling has been a notorious victim of racial abuse, himself highlighting the disparity in how young black and white players are portrayed in the media, this aspect should not be ignored.
But while a myriad of reasons make it all up, there may be a more prosaic explanation that is behind the devaluation of the pound. It’s possible people misunderstand the difficulty of finishing – and that misunderstanding affects Sterling more than most.
There are YouTube compilations dedicated to his close misses. Despite having scored 131 goals for the club, even City supporters were at times exasperated by this perceived unreliability in front of goal, exacerbated by the loss of some high-profile opportunities.
But this view is based on a misconception.
People massively overestimate the probability of a goal based on these odds.
Many will have heard an expert say that a player “must score” after missing. Nine times out of 10, we say, it leads to a goal.
But expected goal models, based on tens of thousands of such examples, show us that this is almost never the case.
That cross that crossed the goal and was just waiting to be pushed home? He might only get in three times out of 10. The one-on-one chance on the angle you’ve been hoping for all night? It’s not marked almost 50% of the time.
Why does this affect Sterling, in particular? Because his game is uncharacteristically focused on the odds people expect players to score. All of his Premier League goals last season came from inside the penalty area. Most were scored from inside the penalty area.
His goals often seem easier. And the same goes for the chances he misses.
Since Guardiola became Manchester City head coach in 2016, Sterling is one of eight players to score 80 or more Premier League goals. But the type of goals he scores, the type of chances he has, are not the same as the others.
Only Jamie Vardy of the other seven players on this list has a higher expected goals per shot. That is, on average, a shot from Vardy, adjusted for location and type, is a higher quality chance than, say, a shot from Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah.
When Kane and Salah hit one from 20 yards out, they stun the crowds. Sterling, like Vardy, rarely attempts the spectacular. On average, his odds have an xG value of 0.18. Compare that to Kevin De Bruyne, whose average xG shot is as low as 0.08.
When one of them enters, De Bruyne is the hero. But does that mean De Bruyne is a much better finisher than Sterling? The answer might be surprising.
Analysis of what Opta consider ‘great chances’ over the past six seasons shows Sterling has scored 63 of the 132 he has had in the Premier League. His conversion rate of 47.73% is comparable to that of Salah (47.98%) and De Bruyne (48.48%).
In fact, Sterling’s high-chance conversion rate is higher than Sadio Mane and many of his own Manchester City team-mates over the past six years, including Gabriel Jesus, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez. He is an above average finisher.
Indeed, the expected goals data shows that the chances he had in the Premier League under Guardiola should have yielded 81.82 goals. Instead, Sterling found the net 85 times with those chances. Why is perception distorted?
It’s likely stemming from the misses – 69 of them since 2016 in what Opta considers “great odds”. The two players with the most ‘big chances’ missed during this period are Salah and Kane. The difference is that they also scored a lot more goals outside the box.
With Sterling, our minds remember the misses but give little credit to the goals.
And that too is a mistake.
Landing the positions to convert those chances is a skill in itself. Take the example of Jack Grealish, now at City. His track record has been relatively poor precisely because he doesn’t have the instinct or the inclination to venture into these fields.
Grealish is criticized for his outing but those watching still see a classy player as they are spared seeing him stretching only to get the ball over the bar from one yard. He doesn’t score the goals that Sterling scores. But he doesn’t miss them either.
All of this means an image is being built of Sterling’s waste, an image that doesn’t match the statistics. The danger for City is that they believe more goals will come with a better finisher there. Instead, they may find that they miss these “easy” goals.
Chelsea could be the beneficiaries.
Don’t expect everyone to credit Raheem Sterling.