The Saints winger has a stage to test himself against his international team-mate on Saturday and prove he is ready to cut it at the top
For Pep Guardiola’s shortcomings in his debut season at Manchester City – and there have been plenty – the transition of Raheem Sterling under the Catalan’s tutelage is something he can be immensely proud of.
The 22-year-old’s form fell away during parts of last season and even moreso during a tepid showing for England at Euro 2016, which he returned from the focus of tabloid vitriol. Guardiola’s introduction as City boss has reinvigorated Sterling, however, and his productivity has increased considerably.
“He’s decisive because he is playing a lot of minutes, a lot of games,” Guardiola said of Sterling earlier in the season. “It is true – how many chances he creates, how many he scores, creates penalties, [wins] fouls and being aggressive without the ball in the press and many, many things. He is so important.”
There is conviction in Guardiola’s words. Sterling’s creativity this season has seen him likened to Barcelona star Neymar while the player himself believes only a glut of goals separates him from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But there is a player, set to go head-to-head with Sterling in Saturday’s late kick-off, who has out-created the City star.
Only one English player has registered more key passes than Southampton’s Nathan Redmond this season – Everton’s Ross Barkley – while he and Sterling stand together with six Premier League goals each. If Sterling is looking to emulate the likes of Neymar, Redmond should be looking to follow his Premier League counterpart to the top of the English game.
Claude Puel’s decision to revert Redmond from an unfamiliar central position to a wide role in a front-three has instilled a confidence in the England Under-21 star and allowed him to flourish. Three goals in five games, on top of a Man of the Match performance in Southampton’s 3-1 victory over an insouciant Crystal Palace side, the reward for his manager’s decision.
There is a directness about both Sterling and Redmond which evokes excitement. The pair are the most-fouled English wingers in the Premier League and both rank in the top five in regards to successful dribbles. There is a cutting edge that Sterling holds over Redmond, though his six assists, compared to Redmond’s one, points more to the benficiaries of the delivery rather than the quality of the ball.
“It has felt good,” Sterling replied when asked about his comparisons with Neymar. “I don’t want to sound massive but I have got a lot more to come. Seeing some assist stats – just a few behind Neymar – that is great to see but I want to be doing it in games like [the Champions League last 16 match with] Monaco, that we lost. Those are the games that make you as a player.”
There is a theme that runs strong through Sterling’s words – his desire to learn from those sitting above him. Through all the cutting criticism the 22-year-old has endured, that still shines through, and Redmond is able to use the former Liverpool wide-man as a measure of his own development.
The narrative of Southampton losing key players to those above them in the Premier League table is well-versed. As is Liverpool’s tendency to inherit that said talent. So speculation linking Redmond with a move to Anfield this summer would have been expected by those associated with Southampton, though not necessarily well-received.
The likes of Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane and most notably Gareth Bale have gone on to establish themselves as top creative outlets following time on the South Coast, with Redmond likely to be next in line.
His threat is no secret to City – it was Redmond who opened the scoring in the reverse fixture at the Etihad earlier in the season as the two sides played out a 1-1 draw. But there is joy to be found by attacking City’s makeshift backline, which saw Jesus Navas covering at right-back against Hull in the latest outing, and Redmond will no doubt be looking to exploit that once again.
Interest in Redmond will be high in the summer transfer window irregardless of his impact at St Mary’s on Saturday evening, though it presents an opportunity to test himself against his international team-mate and a player whose stature in the game he has every chance of emulating.