Raheem Sterling has suffered a tough last 18 months of his footballing life. Ever since his BBC interview where he made it clear he didn’t see his future at Liverpool, he endured a big money, but unceremonious exit when he moved to Man City. Life on the blue side of Manchester started well, but ultimately he failed to live up to the hype and hefty price tag, and Liverpool were left thinking the got the best out of the deal. This was capped off with a dismal display at the Euros during summer, where despite nearly everyone in the England squad underperforming, Sterling seemed to be singled out in particular. Been booed and jeered by his own fans, he became something of a poster boy for everything that’s wrong with the modern footballer, the king of the “too much, too soon” generation.
Things have started to turn around for Raheem in the last few weeks, arguably City’s man of match in each of their opening three league games this season, Sterling looks like a new man since starting life under Pep Guardiola. In the midst of the pointing and laughing last season, many seem to have forgotten that there is a pretty good player in there. He looks sharp, confident and focused. While last season he was plagued with indecision and self-doubt, he now has a ruthlessly precise quality to his game again.
Sterling seems to attribute his revival in form to the confidence and belief that his new manager has showed in him. A simple text message is apparently all it took to put Sterling’s doubts at ease. When England were dumped out of the Euro’s at the hands of Iceland, and the Sterling hate had reached its peak, Guardiola messaged his under fire winger and told him that “If you try for me, I’ll fight for you. You are a big part of my plans.”
We often hear about players who need the old “arm around the shoulder” type of man management. Sometimes a little kiss and a cuddle, and to be told how special they are is all that’s needed to unleash the inner sports beast. This early in the season its impossible to tell if Guardiola’s arm around the shoulder style with Sterling is a short term shot in the arm, or if it will garner a more long term revival, but it’s a case of so far so good Sterling as he looks like he is set to play a key role in any plans City have of challenging for the title again.
Just across the training fence, there is another revival of sorts going on at the United quadrant of Manchester; Marouane Fellaini is still at Man United this season, and not only is he still there, he has started all 3 of United’s Premier League fixtures so far. Two summers ago, if you asked United fans or a bookies about the afro-haired Belgian, he was a sure thing to be sold in the first summer under Louis van Gaal, and again last summer, but he somehow managed to survive the chop. The arrival of Jose Mourinho to Old Trafford this summer, was again almost certainly going to mean that the days were numbered for Fellaini, but yet here we are.
Fellaini hasn’t endured the most positive of relationships with the United faithful. He has had some moderate highs, but the majority of his career as a Red Devil has been disappointing. It was hard for United fans to warm to him initially, David Moyes’ only signing of the 2013 summer window, he became almost synopsis with the failed Moyes era, an on field embodiment of the Moyes reign. Moyes returning to his old club for his only signing showed a lack of imagination or creativity; while waiting until four days after his buyout clause had expired before signing him and therefore paying more than they had to, was a brilliant illustration of why Moyes had earned the nickname Dithering Dave. A lack of imagination, no creativity, and a bit dithering, could all be used to describe Fellaini’s life on the pitch during his first few seasons at United.
But, yet here we are. Fellaini is entering his fourth season at Old Trafford, and for the first time, he seems to have found himself a square hole to fit his square peg. Arguably the most surprising candidate, he has seemingly been the chosen one to partner Paul Pogba in the revamped United midfield. Maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising, Mourinho does normally like the characteristics that Fellaini has in abundance. Mourinho likes big men, especially down the spine of the team, and Fellaini is a player who not only won’t shy away from a physical battle, he is the kind of player who actively goes looking for them whenever possible. A giant of a man who is useful at set pieces in both boxes, he can chip in with goals here and there too. But most of all, he can be a real f**king bastard when he wants to be. And Mourinho loves a bit of that.
I can’t help but feel that Fellaini’s involvement in the team, is somewhat dependent on how long Mourinho decides to persist with keeping Wayne Rooney in the starting 11. Persisting with Rooney, in the form he has been in for the last while, is effectively like playing with 10 men for the most part, and the formation required to shoe horn in the captain does lend itself to having Fellaini anchoring a midfield with the energetic Pogba beside him. Should Rooney’s form eventually see him dropped, and United move to a 4-3-3, I can see the other midfield options becoming more prominent in Jose’s thoughts. For now however, while he may be a lingering monument to the dark David Moyes days, Fellaini is enjoying a resurgence in form, and if Rooney can follow his lead and maintain his place on merit rather than name, then maybe Fellaini can have a key role to play in the new Man United.
One last player who looks like his old self is former Player of the Year Eden Hazard. Hazard is probably the most interesting case of the three, because it’s not that long ago when he was being talked about and grouped with the bracket of players just below the Messi, Ronaldo and Suarez group. Hazard felt like his star had been established and while Sterling and Fellaini had differing circumstances for their poor form, Hazard just feels like he was suffering from a case of the “can’t be arsed’s”.
A season ago, Hazard was almost unplayable for the title winning Chelsea side. A team set up to be a resolute defending machine, the game plan was routinely 10 players saying “we got this defensive thing down, you go and win us the game”, and he often did. Then something changed, he seemed to fall out with then manager Jose Mourinho, and proceeded to just fanny about the pitch for about 8 months.
There were a lot of reports coming off the back of his POTY season that Hazard had his eye on a move to Real Madrid or PSG, and maybe when those moves failed to materialize (maybe due to a hefty price tag put on his head), he lost some of his motivation. I’m only postulating on what might have been the cause, as there was a bit of a chicken and egg situation going on there. Did the poor form come as a result of his falling out with Mourinho, or did they fall out because of the poor form?
Either way, Hazard seemed to be drifting aimlessly and his season was about to fizzle out until the day he decided to be personally affronted by the notion that Spurs might win the league. He started speaking out in the press in the run up to the key clash verses Tottenham at Stamford Bridge with just a couple of game to go; essentially saying that he was going to personally make sure Spurs wouldn’t win the title. And that’s what came to pass. In an ugly game where Hazard was largely a passenger, Spurs were coasting 2-0 with about 10 minutes to go when Hazard suddenly remembered all his trash talk, and also remembered just how good a player he is and decided to turn it on again. He was masterful in the closing 10 or so minutes of that game, creating one and scoring another to mathematically end Spurs’ hopes and dreams. And he looked so happy doing so.
Hazard flipped a switch that night, and has seemingly decided to leave it in the on position ever since. If he can manage to self motivate, and stay on the right side of new manager Antonio Conte, we might be back to having a world beater on our hands.
It’s interesting to note that the upturn in fortunes of the three players discussed coincide with all three working under new managers this season. Maybe it’s a change in atmosphere, a new style of play, a new ethos around camp, or just a good old fashioned clean slate but whether it’s a young man trying to find his feet, an outsider trying to find somewhere to belong, or a talented maverick trying to rediscover his best form, all three will provide an interesting sub plot to the season as it progresses.