The votes in favor of the PFA Player of the Year grants have been thrown and the chances are stacked on a two-horse race between Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah. It’s a comparative story in the Young Player of the Year classification as well, with Manchester City wingers Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané doing combating it out to be delegated best youthful player (anybody aged 23 or under when the season began).
Sterling and Sané have blown away the competition in a season when youth has been somewhat under-represent. Just 20 players aged 21 or under have started at least 10 matches this season and the majority of them were already established at their clubs. Beyond new signings such as Davinson Sánchez, Richarlison and Mikel Merino, there have been very few fresh faces in the league. Trent Alexander-Arnold is probably the most notable breakthrough candidate, but the 19-year-old full-back has not generated the sort of buzz Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford or Sterling have in recent years.
Sterling is now something of a veteran in the Premier League. This is his sixth season of regular first-team football, making his qualification for the award seem quite baffling, but any player aged 23 or under at the start of the season is eligible. Sterling does not turn 24 until December so he will still be in contention next season too.
This has been Sterling’s most productive season by a distance. The weaknesses in his game have not been entirely eradicated – as we saw on Saturday, when he missed a string of chances in the Manchester derby – but, to his credit, he keeps plugging away even if he has spurn a few opportunities. His ability to find clear goal-scoring opportunities in the box has been crucial to Manchester City’s sweeping attacking football this season. Only four players have had more clear-cut goal-scoring opportunities in the league all season (22), and his knack of being in the right place at the right time has helped him to score 16 league goals. Only three players – Salah (29), Harry Kane (24) and Agüero (21) – have scored more.
A quarter of Sterling’s goals have been set up by his main rival for the young player award, Leroy Sané. That two players positioned on opposite flanks have combined so frequently and successfully shows how well Guardiola has his side playing in the final third. Sané has become a key provider for the team, getting to the byline, often inside the penalty area, and squaring the ball for his team-mates to tap home.
Sané’s latest assist, for Vincent Kompany’s opener in the Manchester derby, was his 12th in the league this season. Only de Bruyne has more (15). Sané does not get into as many goal-scoring positions as Sterling – Sané has only taken 49 shots compared to Sterling’s 73 shots – which illustrates that, while the pair have similar skills, their roles in this side are very different.
Sané stays wider on the left while Sterling is given the license to drift into central positions, where he profits from defenders being preoccupied with Agüero and Gabriel Jesus. In that sense, it’s very difficult to pick one above the other. Neither is required to do a great deal of defensive work to cover their full-back. Unsurprisingly, Sterling attempts more shots (2.6 per game to 1.8), while Sané completes more dribbles (2.6 to 2.0) owing to his more traditional role as a winger. Sané is given less support from left-back than what Kyle Walker offers on the right, where his overlaps give Sterling opportunities to move into central areas.
As far as our ratings are concerned, the margins between the two could hardly be finer. Sterling (7.55) just has the edge over Sané (7.53), with no other eligible candidates coming close. Emre Can (7.28), reigning champion Dele Alli (7.15) and Wilfred Ndidi (7.13) complete the top five, but this year’s award will unquestionably be won by a Manchester City player for the first time since Peter Barnes won it in 1976.