Manchester City made it 13 consecutive Premier League victories as Pep Guardiola's team cast aside Arsenal 1-0 thanks to Raheem Sterling's early header.

Hunting an eighth straight win over the Gunners, City made a supreme start which was capped by Sterling's 13th goal of the season for the club in all competitions.

After 30 minutes of dominance, City rather took their foot off the accelerator, though Ederson only had one save to make as City maintained their superb defensive record.

Though they ultimately laboured to victory, City have now won their last 18 games across all competitions, and their march towards the title is showing no sign of slowing.

Sterling had been involved in six goals in his last five Premier League appearances against Arsenal heading into Sunday's game, and he added to that tally inside the opening two minutes.

Having already sliced wide, Sterling was left unmarked to leap up and glance Riyad Mahrez's cross from the right beyond Bernd Leno.

Sterling has only scored more league goals against Bournemouth than against Arsenal, and he would have had a second in this game if not for Leno's later save.

Though City's assault continued – Ilkay Gundogan and Mahrez squandering presentable chances – Arsenal, driven by Bukayo Saka, wrested some control as the first half went on.

Kevin De Bruyne's lob landed wide early in the second half, while Leno was at full stretch to deny German compatriot Gundogan.

De Bruyne's comeback ended with just over an hour gone, Gabriel Jesus replacing the City playmaker.

Joao Cancelo caused problems for Ederson with a dreadful pass – Mohamed Elneny drilling wide from the City goalkeeper's sliced clearance.

Cancelo looked set to atone when he found space in the box, only to prod wide, though City kept Arsenal at arm's length to ensure the full-back's miss did not cost them as their remarkable run rolled on.


What does it mean? City stumble, rather than stomp, to another victory

A 10-point lead at the top of the Premier League shows City's commanding grip over their rivals. Since losing 2-1 at Emirates Stadium in December 2015, City are unbeaten in their last 11 Premier League meetings with Arsenal, who have not been a factor in this year's title race.

The Gunners sit in 10th – 25 points shy of City. Arsenal have now won just three of their last 19 Premier League games when facing the side who started the day of the match in top spot (W3 D4 L12).

Sterling shoots down the Gunners yet again

Sterling has now been involved in more league goals than any other City player this season (14 – nine goals, five assists), while he has scored home and away against Arsenal in each of the last two seasons.

The 26-year-old is also the third player to score in three consecutive away games against Arsenal in the Premier League, after Nicolas Anelka (four games, ending in May 2009) and Ian Harte (three games, ending in May 2003).

Anonymous Aubameyang

After a stuttering start to the season, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has come up big for Arsenal lately, and he went into the game looking to become the first Gunners player to score two goals in three consecutive league starts since Derek Tapscott in March 1956.

However, you will not get many goals if you do not manage a shot, and Aubameyang did not have one effort throughout the match, while he also failed to create any chances.

What's next?

Both sides are in European action in midweek – City facing Borussia Monchengladbach in the Champions League on Wednesday, while Arsenal travel to Athens to face Benfica in the second leg of their Europa League tie.

Manchester City appear to be cruising towards the Premier League title and will look to extend a 17-match winning run away to Mikel Arteta's Arsenal.

While top spot is firmly in their hands, the chasing back have plenty to play for, with Manchester United in need of a win at home to Newcastle United and Tottenham heading to West Ham for a tough London derby.

Chelsea's winning streak under Thomas Tuchel has put them firmly back into top-four contention, and Timo Werner's welcome return to goalscoring could have come at a critical time.

That said, fantasy football managers would also be wise to consider Danny Ings, whose impressive scoring record will be of concern to Tuchel's men.

 

EMILIANO MARTINEZ

Aston Villa's reported £20million spend on Emiliano Martinez is a candidate for the best piece of Premier League business this season.

Martinez kept his 12th clean sheet of the season to help Villa grind out a draw at Brighton and Hove Albion last time out.

The former Arsenal man is just the fifth Villa keeper in the Premier League era to keep at least 10 clean sheets in a season and is only three short of Brad Friedel's tally set back in 2009-10. Leicester City's impressive attack could have met its match.

 

LUKE SHAW

Manchester United left-back Luke Shaw has enjoyed perhaps his best season for the club, with his form rarely affected despite his team's up-and-down recent results.

He has provided an assist in each of his previous three appearances, registering five in total this term, his best tally in a single league season.

Against a struggling Newcastle side, Shaw could become only the fourth United player to assist a goal in four consecutive games, after Ryan Giggs, Nani and Antonio Valencia.

LEWIS DUNK

Brighton have not conceded more than one goal in any game since drawing 3-3 with Wolves on January 2.

On Saturday, they host a Crystal Palace side who have failed to score in a higher share of their away league games this season (58 per cent) than in any other campaign in the competition's history.

A clean sheet for Brighton and Lewis Dunk looks likely, and given the centre-back has scored more goals (six) than any other defender except Virgil van Dijk (also six) since the start of 2019-20, he could be worth the captaincy this weekend.

 

RAHEEM STERLING

If Arsenal are to stop City's run, they will need to keep Raheem Sterling quiet.

The England forward has scored seven times in the league against the Gunners – he has only scored more often against Watford, West Ham and Bournemouth.

Sterling has netted in all three of his previous league meetings with Arsenal and has registered four goals and two assists in his most recent five games against them.

SON HEUNG-MIN

West Ham have rarely gone into recent games with Tottenham as favourites, but they are six points ahead of Jose Mourinho's men in the table, after playing a game more.

However, they will have to contend with Son Heung-min if that points gap is going to grow. The South Korea star has been involved in six goals in his past five league games with the Hammers and assisted in each of the last three.

In fact, he has assisted more goals (four) against West Ham than he has against any other side in the Premier League.

 

TIMO WERNER

Timo Werner ended his league goal drought against Newcastle United last time out, scoring exactly 1,000 minutes after his previous effort against Sheffield United in November.

Despite that much-publicised goal drought, Werner has actually been directly involved in more goals (10) in the league than any other Chelsea player this season, while only Mason Mount (105) has had a hand in more shots (73).

With his confidence beginning to grow, this could be a good time to back the Germany striker in your selection.

DANNY INGS

Southampton have lost six games in a row since knocking Arsenal out of the FA Cup in the fourth round, so backing a win over Chelsea would seem a little bold.

Still, expecting Danny Ings to be among the goals is usually a safer bet.

The striker has the best minutes-per-goal ratio of any Saints player with at least 15 in the competition, averaging one every 161 minutes.

In-form Raheem Sterling scored his 12th goal of the season as Manchester City cruised into the FA Cup quarter-finals and made history with a 3-1 victory at Swansea City.

Pep Guardiola's irrepressible side eased to a 15th consecutive win - a record for an English top-flight club - at the Liberty Stadium to stay in the hunt for an unprecedented quadruple.

Kyle Walker opened the scoring with a cross and two goals in the space of three minutes early in the second half put the Premier League leaders out of sight.

Championship promotion contenders Swansea were outclassed as the City juggernaut rolled on, although they did suffer a blow when Rodri was forced off with an injury before Morgan Whittaker pulled a goal back.

Jesus received treatment on his ankle early on, but was able to continue and the striker missed a chance to opening the scoring when he steered Benjamin Mendy's cross wide.

Swansea were chasing shadows as City dominated, knocking the ball around with a swagger, and Ferran Torres' shot from a tight angle was brilliantly tipped wide by Freddy Woodman.

Woodman was beaten on the half-hour mark, though, when Walker's centre from the right evaded everybody and found the far corner of the net.

Marc Guehi nodded wide at the other end in a rare Swansea attack, but an unmarked Sterling finished clinically when he was well picked by Rodri two minutes into the second half.

Swansea were caught out again soon after, with Jesus controlling a clever cushioned header back across goal from Bernardo Silva in an instant and swivelling to fire home with his left foot.

Joel Latibeaudiere somehow denied Mendy a tap-in with great last-ditch defending and Rodri limped off before Whittaker superbly gave the hosts a consolation, drilling in left-footed for his first Swansea goal.

Phil Foden must be "calm" and "humble" as the plaudits flow his way, according to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Foden completed the scoring in Sunday's 4-1 win over Premier League champions Liverpool at Anfield, having also had a hand in each of Ilkay Gundogan's two second-half goals.

The 20-year-old attacking midfielder has 10 goals for City in all competitions this season and has played an integral part in them establishing a five-point lead at the top of the table.

However, Guardiola was critical of Foden's performance in the false nine role before half-time on Merseyside and, speaking ahead of Wednesday's FA Cup trip to Swansea City, said he felt Raheem Sterling was City's standout weekend performer.

"I said to [Foden], 'Don't read much, don't listen much, keep your feet on the grass and keep going'," Guardiola said, before waxing lyrical about Sterling after the England star won a penalty and scored a close-range header against his former club.

"Nobody talks much about Raheem and, at Anfield, Raheem made his best game of the last two months. By far.

"He was key in the first goal, for the penalty in the first half. Every action he made was decisive in the final third.

"Of course Phil was so important in the goals, especially in the fantastic last one.

"But Raheem was fundamental for us and hopefully, because he was a little bit not in the best form in the last month, he can continue to maintain the level he played at Anfield."

Foden will be reunited with Steve Cooper on Wednesday when Guardiola's City chase an English record - a 15th consecutive win for a top flight team.

The Swansea boss coached England to success in the 2017 U-17 World Cup, where the young Mancunian was named player of the tournament.

From that point, Guardiola has faced repeated calls to grant the playmaker more minutes at City.

A strand of post-match analysis at the weekend argued the former Barcelona boss had nurtured his latest star perfectly, but Guardiola does not necessarily view it that way and also stated Foden should not consider himself an automatic selection.

"I didn’t plan to handle the way we did it with Phil," Guardiola said. "Sometimes he played and he didn’t deserve to play.

"Normally we want to increase and talk a lot, a lot, a lot about Phil but after that we'll punish him, you know? For one mistake in this private life, we know exactly what happened [Foden was sent home from England duty last September for breaking coronavirus protocols].

"Now it's just [about being] calm. I know Phil is ready to play, His physical condition is extraordinary.

"I will handle it the same way and have handled it. When I believe he can help us he is going to play; when I believe another one deserves to play he is not going to play."

Indeed, with Foden the toast of the present moment in English football, Guardiola challenged him to turn a rich vein of form into the sort of longevity that separates the best from the rest.

"He has to be calm and understand tough periods will come. It depends on him being humble and his love for the game," Guardiola added of a player who recently brought up 100 senior appearances for City.

"We’ll see if he can handle it. Now the people expect him every game to do exceptional things, this is the most important thing.

"It's difficult to play 100 games but the important thing is to do 100 more and 100 more at this level. This is the toughest.

"This is why the best players did not do one action at Anfield; they play five years in a row, being consistent, not injured. Playing, playing, playing.

"This is the next target for Phil, maintain there as high as possible, as much and as long as possible.

"It depends absolutely on him. Hopefully he can do it."

There was more penalty drama for Manchester City as the Premier League leaders visited reigning champions Liverpool on Sunday.

Gundogan skied his spot-kick at an empty Anfield, although it would not prove a costly miss as City ran out 4-1 winners to extend their advantage at the summit.

Pep Guardiola will no doubt be keen to correct a remarkable failing in his outstanding side's game, however.

City's record from 12 yards features in our quirky facts from the weekend's top-flight action.
 

Sterling's penchant for pens wasted at City

As Gundogan, who later scored twice, blazed over in front of the Kop, it meant City have now accounted for four of the past six Premier League spot-kicks to miss the target - including three against Liverpool (also Riyad Mahrez in October 2018 and Kevin De Bruyne in November 2020).

City are five points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand but could be in an even more commanding position if they were more clinical from the spot.

In Raheem Sterling, City boast the player who has won more penalties (21) than any other in Premier League history, the latest seeing Fabinho trip the former Liverpool forward.

Sterling is unlikely to ease his side's penalty woes, however, having scored just one of his four attempts in the competition.

Only two players in Premier League history have a worse record after taking at least four penalties, with Mike Newell and Juninho Paulista each missing all their four attempts.

Nick Barmby, like Sterling, netted one of four. No player in the competition has ever taken five or more penalties and converted fewer than two.
 

Lloris longevity leading Ronaldo and Messi

Tottenham captain Hugo Lloris made his 500th top-flight appearance in the 2-0 win over West Brom, keeping his 173rd clean sheet.

Since his Ligue 1 bow for Nice in March 2006, no player has appeared more often in Europe's top five leagues than the World Cup-winning France goalkeeper.

Second on the list over that span is another goalkeeper still going strong in Inter's Samir Handanovic on 493 games, coincidentally also registering 173 clean sheets.

And the two biggest names of all sit third and fourth, Cristiano Ronaldo on 484 appearances just ahead of Lionel Messi's 480.

Karim Benzema (463) makes the top 10, while David Silva (448), Sergio Ramos (446) and Sergio Aguero (443) are all in the top 20.
 

Saints star not quite the free-kick king

James Ward-Prowse's latest free-kick goal came in a losing effort for Southampton at Newcastle United, but he nudged further up the all-time Premier League standings.

The spectacular effort at St James' Park was the England international's 10th direct free-kick strike in the competition, becoming the ninth player to that mark.

Ward-Prowse has scored with 13.9 per cent of his 72 direct free-kick shots, while 37 per cent of his 27 Premier League goals have come via this method.

Only Laurent Robert (11 of 23 goals for 47.8 per cent) and Sebastian Larsson (11 of 26 goals for 42.3 per cent) netted a greater share of their goals in the competition direct from set-pieces.

Ward-Prowse still has some way to go to match David Beckham's record of 20 free-kick goals, however. Thierry Henry (12), Gianfranco Zola (12) and Ronaldo (11), along with Robert and Larsson, are the others still above the Southampton star.

His tally of four this term trails only Beckham in 2000-01 and Robert the following season (both five) over a single campaign.

Manchester City took another big step towards the Premier League title as they thrashed Liverpool 4-1 on Sunday, a record-equalling 14th straight victory in all competitions.

Only Preston North End, whose run ended in January 1892, and Arsenal in 1987 have ever achieved such a sequence of wins while in England's top flight.

City can now set a new benchmark against Swansea in the FA Cup on Wednesday.

They have moved five points clear of second-placed Manchester United with a game in hand at the top of the Premier League, while Liverpool are back in fourth, 10 points off the pace.

Defending champions Liverpool were undefeated in 68 consecutive home league matches before hosting Burnley last month but have now lost three in a row at Anfield for the first time since September 1963, also being beaten by Brighton and Hove Albion prior to this fixture.

Chelsea, in March 1956, were the previous reigning champions to endure a three-game losing stretch at home in the top flight.

Liverpool at least ended a 410-minute home league goal drought with Mohamed Salah's penalty, cancelling out Ilkay Gundogan's opener.

The Reds avoided going four league matches at Anfield without scoring for the first time in their history, having drawn a blank in a draw with United prior to this losing run, but it counted for little in the end.

Gundogan preyed on an Alisson error for his second, before the Liverpool goalkeeper again ceded possession for Raheem Sterling to net his 100th goal under Pep Guardiola.

Alisson became the first Liverpool goalkeeper to make two errors leading directly to goals since Loris Karius' desperate showing in the 2017-18 Champions League final.

There was still time, too, for Phil Foden to add a spectacular fourth and cap City's first away win in this fixture since May 2003.

Aged 20 years and 255 days old, Foden, who teed up Gundogan's second, became the youngest player to score and assist in a Premier League game against Liverpool at Anfield.

Ilkay Gundogan scored twice as Manchester City secured a record-equalling 14th successive win in all competitions – and a first for Pep Guardiola at Anfield - with a 4-1 thrashing of struggling Liverpool.  

The Germany midfielder made amends for a first-half penalty miss with a brace after the break as the visitors cut loose to march five points clear at the Premier League summit.  

Alisson's poor clearance led to Gundogan's second of the game and the goalkeeper was also at fault for City's third, as Raheem Sterling headed in his 100th for the club under Guardiola. Phil Foden rubbed salt in the home side's wounds with a superb solo goal to round out the scoring. 

The result leaves Liverpool's title defence in tatters; they have lost three successive league games at home for the first time since 1963 and sit 10 points back having played a game more than the leaders.  

Mohamed Salah did end a home league goal drought spanning 410 minutes when he converted a penalty having been pulled back by Ruben Dias, but Alisson’s errors helped City respond in emphatic fashion.

Raheem Sterling's lack of goals at Anfield is of no concern to Pep Guardiola head of Manchester City's crunch trip to face Liverpool on Sunday.

The England forward has scored three times in his past four Premier League appearances, helping to prolong a nine-match winning run that has put Guardiola's men on top of the table.

Sterling is his club's top scorer in all competitions this season with 10, although his record against the team he left to join City in 2015 is paltry.

In 14 matches for City against Liverpool, the 26-year-old has scored twice - the opener in the 2019 Community Shield at Wembley and the second in a 4-0 win over Jurgen Klopp's freshly crowned champions at the Etihad Stadium last July.

Six return visits to Anfield have drawn a blank, but Guardiola believes Sterling's performances overall have been up to the mark - highlighting his contribution as City went down 3-1 last season on Merseyside.

"I remember last time, when we lost 3-1 there, he made an incredible, exceptional game," Guardiola said of an all-action display culminating in a flashpoint with Liverpool defender Joe Gomez, an incident that infamously spilled over into England duty the following week.

"With this, I am more than satisfied.

"Of course, I want my strikers and attacking midfielders to score - everyone, two goals a game.

"That's what I want and he wants more than me. He likes to play on the biggest stages.

"I don't have doubts about this. But what I want is us to do it all together."

Indeed, the goals that have fired City back to the summit following a poor start to the campaign - they can go 10 points clear of fourth-placed Liverpool with a game in hand if they prevail this weekend - have necessarily been a collective endeavour.

Sergio Aguero, the club's all-time leading scorer, remains on the mend following a bout of coronavirus, his season having already been decimated by knee and hamstring problems.

City's leading creator Kevin De Bruyne (hamstring) will also miss out this weekend, although the likes of Phil Foden (nine goals in all competitions) and Ilkay Gundogan (nine in all competitions, seven in the Premier League) have come to the fore.

Of City players to have scored six or more goals this season - Ferran Torres (eight), Gabriel Jesus (seven) and Riyad Mahrez (six) complete the group along - Sterling has the best shooting accuracy (excluding blocks) at 72.7 per cent.

Gundogan, whose first Premier League goal of the campaign only came in the 1-1 draw against West Brom on December 15, has the best conversion rate of 24.3 per cent, with Foden and Sterling together on 16.7 behind Jesus (18).

Sterling has registered the most shots on target with 32 but has missed 14 of what Opta classes as "big chances", scoring seven.

Foden, Gundogan and Torres have only missed 10 big chances between them. On that metric, Gundogan has the best conversion rate of 62.5 per cent (scored five, missed three).

Spain international Torres, whose campaign was interrupted around the turn of the year by a positive COVID-19 test, has the best minutes-per-goal rate of 169.6, ahead of Gundogan (188.4).

One goal every 220.6 minutes places Sterling fifth out of the six, ahead of only Mahrez on 303.2. This is down on 2019-20, when he averaged a goal every 128.7 minutes en route to 31 in total - the most prolific season of his career.

"Our top scorer in the Premier League is seven goals, maybe in 14th or 15th position [in the league overall]," Guardiola said.

"If we don't understand what we have done so far, all together, we are going to drop.

"Everyone is going to solve for us, everyone is going to save us. It's going to be the team, the group.

"When that happens, we can compete. When we believe, for myself, I am going to do it or this guy alongside me is going to solve the game, we are going to lose."

He added: "Our success all the time when we are together was the quality we had as a players in a team.

"In the individual statistics we are far away from the best clubs. But our statistics as a team are really good. That is why we are first."

Raheem Sterling struck Manchester City's second goal in their 2-0 win at Burnley to move onto 99 for the club in the Premier League.

With Pep Guardiola's men starting to build an ominous lead at the top of the table, this weekend would be an ideal time for Sterling to score for just the second time against Liverpool in what would be his 11th league meeting with his former employers.

Burnley have had a poor couple of games but there's value to be had in backing three of their top performers to deliver when they host in-form Brighton and Hove Albion.

Meanwhile, Anthony Martial is back among the goals for Manchester United and could well be worth a spot in your fantasy line-up.

NICK POPE

Burnley's number one Nick Pope had a rare moment of misfortune last time out, flapping at a Bernardo Silva shot that allowed Gabriel Jesus a simple goal three minutes in.

Still, he made four saves in total to keep the scoreline reasonably respectable and take his tally to 204 in the competition since the start of last season. No goalkeeper has made more.

In fact, only Ederson (29) has kept more clean sheets than Pope (22) in that same time frame, and the man hopeful of becoming England's regular number one will be determined to add to that against Brighton and prove his City slip-up was a mere blip.

 

JAMES TARKOWSKI

Like his goalkeeper, James Tarkowski has also kept 22 Premier League clean sheets since August 2019, more than any other defender (Harry Maguire is next on 21). He has every chance of getting another here.

Brighton are on a roll after beating Tottenham and Liverpool 1-0 and they won this game last season at Turf Moor 2-1, Aaron Connolly scoring a second-half winner.

However, three of the seven Premier League meetings between these two have finished 0-0, including the reverse game in November. Indeed, this could be the first fixture in Premier League history to see no goals scored in both games in two separate campaigns (there were two 0-0 draws in 2017-18, too).

 

LUCAS DIGNE

Everton left-back Lucas Digne has already registered six assists this season, the most of any defender in the league. Since he joined the Toffees in 2018, only Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold (28) can better his tally of 17.

Digne actually splits the two Liverpool full-backs when it comes to chances created over the same time period, his 165 bettered only by Alexander-Arnold among defenders (166).

His battle with Manchester United's Aaron Wan-Bissaka could be key to the result at Old Trafford.

RAHEEM STERLING

As well as scoring 99 goals, Sterling has provided 55 assists in all competitions for City under Guardiola. Those 154 goal involvements are the most of any player in the Catalan's time in charge, eight more than next best Sergio Aguero.

The England forward has not always enjoyed facing his old club and City have a fairly miserable record at Anfield, having won just once in their previous 29 league visits – and that was back in May 2003.

But with the champions reeling from consecutive home defeats to Burnley and Brighton, Sterling may well sense the Reds are there for the taking.

 

JAMES MADDISON

In Leicester City's 2-0 win at Fulham, James Maddison set up both goals, marking the first time he has recorded multiple assists in a Premier League game.

In his previous 12 appearances in all competitions, the former Norwich City man has been directly involved in 12 goals (six scored and six assisted). There were just three games in that run where he failed to score or set up a team-mate.

Brendan Rodgers' men are flying high and will be confident of a result away to an inconsistent Wolves.

 

CHRIS WOOD

Chris Wood has only scored four league goals all season and just one of those has come in his most recent seven appearances.

That could all change against Brighton. Wood has scored eight times in league football against the Seagulls, making them his favourite opponent in English football.

 

ANTHONY MARTIAL

Anthony Martial had a positive cameo in that 9-0 demolition of Southampton, scoring twice and winning a (controversial) penalty after coming on at half-time.

Everton will not want to see Martial with renewed confidence. The France forward has managed six goals and three assists in his past 11 appearances in all competitions against the Toffees.

Even if Edinson Cavani starts in his place, Martial may well be a threat: he came off the bench to score one and set up another in a 2-0 EFL Cup win at Goodison Park in December.

First-half goals from Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling saw Manchester City ease to a 2-0 win at Burnley.

The Premier League leaders extended their club-record winning run to 13 matches across all competitions, with the result rarely appearing in doubt from the moment Jesus capitalised upon a third-minute error by Nick Pope.

Sterling claimed his 10th of the season seven minutes before the interval, after which point City's football continued to flow but the goals dried up.

Pep Guardiola's side are three points clear at the summit with a game in hand on Manchester United, with champions Liverpool next on their agenda this weekend.

Sterling darted inside from the left to play in Bernardo Silva, whose shot was poorly dealt with by Pope to leave Jesus with a simple leaded finish.

Pope looked to be in trouble again when he charged out of his area to confront Sterling in the 20th minute but the England goalkeeper managed to get a timely foot in.

City had to bide their time as Burnley grew into the contest but a wonderful link-up between Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan allowed the latter to drill across goal for Sterling to convert from close range.

Joao Cancelo fired too close to Pope just before half-time and Burnley's number one sharply thwarted Sterling early in the second period as the visitors looked to conclusively end the argument.

Mahrez thought he had but was fractionally offside when he steered in Jesus' cross.

Burnley finally registered a shot in the 64th minute when Matej Vydra acrobatically volleyed over, but waves of slick City attacks continued to arrive.

Ederson decided to involve himself in the action by clattering through Erik Pieters and provide the strange spectacle of a goalkeeper getting booked for a foul on a left-back.

It was the closest City came to a scare.

Kevin De Bruyne's gesture during the closing stages of Manchester City's Premier League game against Brighton and Hove Albion was one of selflessness towards a team-mate and friend, but also one that backfired.

De Bruyne ceded his penalty-taking duties after drawing a foul from Albion goalkeeper Robert Sanchez in stoppage time at a sodden Etihad Stadium, giving Raheem Sterling the chance to step up.

Unfortunately, the England international ballooned his attempt into the deserted North Stand, leaving Pep Guardiola's side with a few more needlessly nervy minutes to see out a 1-0 win.

A key contributor as City racked up six major trophies in the three previous campaigns under Guardiola, Sterling is yet to fully hit his stride this time around, even as his colleagues in sky blue have moved their collective level through the gears over recent weeks to sit menacingly poised in the Premier League title race.

The Brighton miss means he has scored only three goals in his past 18 appearances in all competitions, a run of four in three either side of the October international break proving to be something of a false dawn.

"He’s an incredibly important player for us," Guardiola said of Sterling ahead of Sunday's meeting with Crystal Palace, which will come as the immediate dust settles on the top-two clash between Manchester United and Liverpool at Anfield.

"Everything we have done in the past, without him would not have been possible."

True as that might be, Sterling relocating his past form would certainly benefit City in an unpredictable season of ample possibilities.

In 2019-20, Sterling enjoyed the most prolific season of his career, scoring 20 goals in the Premier League and 31 overall.

His Premier League haul outperformed an xG of 17.3, coming from 97 shots, although he was even more clinical in those terms the last time City won the Premier League in 2018-19.

In that year of a domestic treble, within 25 in all competitions, Sterling's 17 top-flight goals from 77 attempts had an xG value of 13.7.

This season, he has four Premier League goals and an xG of 3.6. His 29 shots include five unsuccessful efforts from inside the six-yard box.

Close-range misses have become an unwelcome feature in Sterling's game, most gallingly when he blazed over with the goal at his mercy during City's chastening Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon in August.

Before last season, the 26-year-old had never dipped below a 50 per cent conversion rate on what Opta rank as "big chances".  He was most efficient in this regard when he scored 18 of 31 (58 per cent) in 2018-19.

That percentage dropped to 39.6 in 2019-20, as he scored 23 big chances and spurned 35. This term, five scored and 13 missed means a further drop to 27.8 per cent within this smaller sample size.

Sterling's overall shot conversion of 14.3 per cent is its lowest since 11.7 per cent in Guardiola's first trophy-less season at City in 2016-17.

So, in a talent stacked squad, should he be fearing for his place? In short, no.

"He will score goals, he will make assists and he wants to help in all departments," Guardiola insisted.

"Normally wingers are not able do that but he can help us. I'm more than happy to have him here with us."

A player holding himself to the high standards Sterling does is unlikely to take any comfort in the old head-tousling adage of "he was there to miss 'em", but there is something to be said for his relentless desire to contribute to the cause, irrespective of where his individual form resides.

Guardiola certainly views him as indispensable. Sterling has played 24 games and completed 1,864 minutes this season, second only to Premier League ever-present Rodri in the City squad.

He has had more shots on target (27) and attempted (88) and completed (41) more dribbles than any other City player. In terms of overall shots (38) and assists (six) he is only bettered by Kevin De Bruyne.

Sterling has created 30 chances for others and, despite his struggles in front of goal, remains joint-second in the squad's goalscoring charts on seven alongside Ferran Torres, one shy of midweek matchwinner Phil Foden.

The former Liverpool youngster's previous goal, when he scored decisively at Southampton in December, made him the first player to reach 150 goal involvements for Guardiola's City.

And, although the Brighton game ended in personal disappointment, his introduction from the bench was his 220th appearance under Guardiola. No player has been selected more frequently by the Catalan tactician in his celebrated career, with a certain Lionel Messi second on that list.

It is that overall big picture of absolute trust and an unquenchable thirst to contribute to the wider cause that means Sterling will remain one of Guardiola's most trusted performers, even if his dry spell goes on a little longer.

We need to talk about Kevin. Because if you noticed something was different about Kevin De Bruyne this season, you were on the money.

The PFA players' player of the year, the FIFPro World XI star and the reigning Champions League midfielder of the season has been performing a modified role for Manchester City since David Silva departed.

And is it pure coincidence that in this phase of semi-transition, a goal-shy City have scored 3-0, 3-1 and 4-1 wins when starting without their Belgian playmaker, the man who supposedly makes them tick?

De Bruyne is a wonderful footballer, and laying on seven goals in 13 Premier League games this season attests to that, a strong follow-up already to last term's record-equalling 20 assists.

Supremely skilled with both feet, you feel he could play anywhere and be hugely influential.

But the right flank has been his established station, and this term there has been no such instinctive attraction to that side of the pitch.

De Bruyne is roaming, occupying positions to the left, right and centre as a number 10 in all but number (he remains in the 17 shirt). Opposition right-backs who were rarely closer than waving distance to the City maestro are seeing him encroach on their territory, an unwelcome pest few can handle.

Chelsea, his former club, will not be relishing the task of stopping De Bruyne when City visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

But does the 2020-21 deployment truly suit De Bruyne, and more pertinently does it suit City?

TOUCHED BY HIS PRESENCE

Touch maps from Opta show how evenly distributed De Bruyne's involvement has been in this Premier League campaign.

He's here, there and in fact he's everywhere across the attacking midfield zones, and it is hard not to think that is to cover for the loss of the creativity previously provided by close-season departee David Silva, a player whose much-missed promptings were helping to thrust Real Sociedad towards the front of the LaLiga leading pack until injury struck in November.

In 14 Premier League games this season, City have created 166 chances, an average of almost 11.9 per game, but last term they ran up 583 across 38 games, marginally above 15.3 each match.

De Bruyne's chance creation rate has hardly nosedived, but it has slipped from one every 20.6 minutes in 2019-20 to one every 26.2 minutes this season.

His total of 42 chances created in the Premier League so far (31 open play, 11 set-play) far outstrips team-mates, with Riyad Mahrez next on the list with 23 carved out, followed by full-back Joao Cancelo who has teed up 22 opportunities.

Bernardo Silva was creating chances at a rate of one every 39.8 minutes last term but that has crashed to one every 138.5 minutes in 2020-21, while Raheem Sterling has gone the same way, a slight fall from one every 55.4 minutes to one each 64.1 minutes.

Mahrez is making chances at one every 33.4 minutes this season compared to 32.3 last term, while Phil Foden, long touted as the natural successor to David Silva, has a rate of a one every 84.2 minutes, down from per 49.6 minutes.

Could De Bruyne be inadvertently cramping the style of his team-mates as he spreads his wings across the pitch, inevitably a magnet for the ball?

A VIRTUOSO IN NEED OF A BACKING BAND

De Bruyne has missed just one Premier League game this season, the home clash with Arsenal back in October that City won 1-0 thanks to a Sterling strike.

There was little to catch the eye in the chances created (11) or shots (13) columns that day, but City's attacking midfielders and forwards were noticeably less bunched over the 90 minutes that day than was the case in their Etihad Stadium clash with Newcastle last time out.

For that December 26 fixture, in which De Bruyne played, his average position was tucked in just behind Sterling, with Ferran Torres and Bernardo Silva close at hand.

City won 2-0, but the average position map points to limited midfield width. A little social distancing to ease congestion between the front quartet, as was the case in the Arsenal game, could be in order.

Despite having De Bruyne on board, City created just a modest 10 chances and had 11 shots against Newcastle. Seven of those opportunities were defined as 'big chances', though, a season-high for City, so perhaps they are belatedly creating the right quality of opening with their new shape, if not the quantity. Or perhaps Newcastle are ripe for that sort of thing.

While De Bruyne continues in his virtuoso way and can clearly be devastating anywhere across the midfield, the likes of Bernardo Silva and Foden must prompt more frequently. They might be encouraged to do so if City's strikers were putting away chances with a higher degree of efficacy. It is a two-way road.

WHAT ABOUT THE THUMPINGS WITHOUT DE BRUYNE?

It might be doing De Bruyne a disservice to read too much into City piling on the goals without him, looking at the 3-1 home win over Porto, which he missed with a muscle injury, and the 3-0 box-ticking exercise that was Marseille in Manchester for City's final Champions League group game.

Arsenal were then under-strength and hopelessly out of form before the 4-1 EFL Cup trouncing they suffered at City's hands, on December 22.

What the data tells us from City's season is that De Bruyne's levels remain extraordinary, but he is now a roving beacon of midfield genius rather than a master of one position.

With this tactical switch clearly coming at the behest of Pep Guardiola, it falls to the City manager to examine the evidence of its impact and make the strategy and selection tweaks that could still make it effective.

Failing that, Guardiola could revert to Plan A.

Many a wide player has coveted a role further infield, and it has not always come for the betterment of the team. Giving De Bruyne his old job back may be City's easiest get-out.

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