NOLITO SIGNING REPRESENTS A CHALLENGE TO UNDER-FIRE STERLING

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The 29-year-old has taken an alternative route to the top but arrives at the Etihad ready to fit straight into Pep Guardiola’s philosophy – and he could tutor his young team-mate

Nolito never quite made the grade for Pep Guardiola during their time together at Barcelona, but the late starter has been identified as an important part of the Catalan’s new Manchester City era.

It was Nolito’s decision to leave Camp Nou in 2011, despite Guardiola urging him to stay. The man who only joined Barca B at the age of 21 had made just two appearances for the senior team, and at 24 he took the plunge and moved to Benfica in search of first-team football.

Sent on loan to Granada a year later, it seemed he made a bad choice. But, after being thrown a bone at Celta by Luis Enrique, who was coached Nolito for Barca’s reserves, he now has his big move. And not a moment too soon.

At the age of 29, Nolito is represents almost a cliche of a footballer’s alternative route to the top. He played indoor football until being dragged off the pitch when he was a teen, only got his break when he was in his 20s, and shunned potential superstar status with the best club side in the world – certainly at the time – in search of more realistic opportunities. He even rejected a move to England two summers ago, insisting “it’s cold, it rains a lot and the food’s bad.”

But now he’s here, and for a good reason. Like the rest of the players who will move to the Etihad Stadium this summer, he fits the Guardiola profile. He was on the fringes at Camp Nou as David Villa slotted in on the left-hand side of the attack, but his time in the B team under Luis Enrique stood him in good stead for the future.

After Luis Enrique left to take the big job at Barca, it was the arrival of “Toto” Berrizzo at Celta that really took Nolito up a level. Berrizzo, another Argentine disciple of infamous coach Marcelo ‘El Loco’ Bielsa, employed a high-tempo pressing game and it was this that got the best out of the hard-working yet skilful winger.

It is clear to see, then, why Guardiola wants him at City. The talents the Catalan identified five years ago have been honed as the two men took their own paths towards the Etihad.

Tasked with overhauling a squad that was too often and too easily beaten last season, Guardiola has decided that Nolito – at the comparatively tiny price of roughly £14 million – will bring exactly the traits he is looking for: fighting spirit, a touch of quality and, fundamentally, an understanding of his much vaunted philosophy.

Handed the No.9 shirt, the Spaniard will clearly play an important role in City’s transitional first year under Pep. And on the left-hand side of the attack.

Where, then, does that leave Raheem Sterling? The party line regarding the England winger is that he will flourish under Guardiola. That’s been the widely accepted stance among fans and media alike since the early part of this year, when his performances began to dip and his season fizzled out thanks to injury.
But whatever criticisms may be levelled at the coaching styles of Brendan Rodgers, Roy Hodgson and Manuel Pellegrini, what a privileged position Sterling is in that only improving his game under Guardiola, widely regarded as the best in the business, is considered acceptable.

Not that this should be mistaken for another hatchet job on the youngster. The over-the-top criticism of his early performances at the Euros was balanced out by the staunch protection afforded him by defensive City fans. As ever, the truth lay somewhere in the middle – until England’s elimination on Monday.

Since then, it has been open season on the squad and the backlash has been off the charts. Kyle Walker was labelled a “hippy crack idiot” in one newspaper. Sterling got away with “footie idiot” in another, but he did enough to make the front page of the Sun, under the headline Obscene Raheem. His crime? Having an expensive house. According to some reports, it was one he bought for his mother.

Even given England’s ignominious exit, the fall-out has been ridiculous.
But these are uncertain times for Sterling.
If he was going through a tough time with England, he will no doubt have been assured about his future at City during a phone call with Guardiola ahead of the Iceland match. He may have struggled overall in that game but the run he made to win England’s early penalty was textbook.

Signs like those suggest he really could improve his game during Pep’s time at City, and the new coach does count on him. The Catalan is even rumoured to have been consulted over his transfer from Liverpool last summer, so it should not be a case of a new manager finding himself at odds with the old regime – not in Sterling’s case, anyway.

The signing of Nolito, though, poses at least a short-term threat.

The 29-year-old is considered ready to make an immediate impact, to fit into the philosophy, and given the current fortunes of both men it is he who could start the season on the left-hand side.

Long-term, however, Sterling should benefit. Given how Barca-ingrained youngsters Pedro, Sergio Busquets and Thiago Alcantara have been used by Guardiola to tutor established players like David Villa, Javier Mascherano and Phillipp Lahm, the England youngster will likely end up studying City’s latest arrival closely.

Their respective ages will make this a more traditional learning experience, too.
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