1st December 2017.
Just 19 appearances into his 2017/18 campaign, not yet having reached December, Raheem Sterling has already returned the highest single-season goals tally of his career.

The England international winger has been on fire for table-topping Manchester City, scoring 13 goals in all competitions and trailing only Liverpool's Mohamed Salah and Tottenham Hotspur's Harry Kane in the Premier League scoring chart.

Sterling has made huge developmental leaps in recent months, improving technical aspects of his game such as his finishing, passing and crossing, while also making gains in his composure, temperament and timing.

All of this has led to the 22-year-old, who had previously been unfairly considered a £49 million flop by some observers, becoming one of Manchester City's most important players as they push for glory domestically and in the Champions League.

This is evidenced by the fact that he has scored decisive goals in four of the five games this season that the Citizens have won by a one-goal margin, and five of his nine league goals have come after the 75th minute, three of which rescuing last-gasp victories.

The latest such instance was Wednesday night's clash with Southampton at the Etihad. City had been pegged back in the second half and appeared to be heading for only their second draw of the season. The score was 1-1 after 90 minutes and the Saints were defending resolutely, wasting time where possible as stoppage time ticked away.

But Pep Guardiola's side kept playing their game, refusing to resort to route-one football, instead building patiently and quickly circulating possession in the final third. Then, in the 96th minute, City worked the ball to Sterling on the edge of the penalty area and the former Liverpool youngster curled a delicious strike beyond the reach of goalkeeper Fraser Forster and into the top corner.

The arrival of Portuguese playmaker Bernardo Silva in the summer and the continued improvement of German winger Leroy Sané threatened to rob Sterling of regular game time this term, but the Englishman is now virtually undroppable for City.

Had Alexis Sánchez arrived from Arsenal on deadline day as planned, perhaps Sterling's starting place would have been in jeopardy he was even being linked with a move in the opposite direction as a makeweight for the Chilean attacker. But the transfer didn't materialise and City might well be glad things panned out the way they did.

It remains to be seen whether City continue to pursue Sánchez in the January transfer window, or next summer when he will be a free agent. But there should no longer be any question of the former Barcelona star's potential arrival coming at Sterling's expense. Seven years his junior, the Jamaica-born youngster's rapid improvement could see him contribute much more, and over a longer period, than Sánchez.

Much of the credit for Sterling's recent gains on the pitch has been attributed to Guardiola's studious work with the player on the training field. Indeed, in November, a video emerged showing the Catalan tactician instructing Sterling on how to better position his body when receiving the ball, advising him to be on the half-turn when engaging in give-and-gos. And the results of this kind of special attention have been evident in the 22-year-old's performances this season.

Often a figure of derision in the press, with his personal life brought into question in ways that are wholly undeserved and smack of underlying prejudices, Sterling is now beginning to win over the masses. And he has no bigger fan than his manager, with Guardiola praising the player's development recently.

"He is young, still can improve but he made a big gap," the former Bayern Munich and Barcelona coach said. "He is winning games, now he's a winning player. Before he made good actions but now he is able to win games.

"We are in November, he has already broken the record so that is top. But not just in terms of goals: he is now strong, keeping the ball before he would lose a lot of balls, now he is keeping the situation much, much better, one against one, to provoke fouls.

"I am impressed but still he's 22 years old, still he can a lot of things improve. If he wants to learn, we will be there to help him."

And as far back as November 2016, just a few months into Guardiola's Etihad reign, Sterling was already feeling the benefit of the new manager's expertise.

"He's really fluid with his style of play. He wants players through the midfield playing," Sterling explained in an interview for the BBC.

"He wants everyone getting involved. And when the wingers get it he wants them to be direct and make crosses, and try to score goals as well. For me that's a massive bonus because probably I wasn't getting as much involved last year with my dribbling and stuff."

Sterling has been capped 35 times for England since making his senior Three Lions debut in 2012. The young forward has often been levelled with a disproportionate amount of blame for the side's failings during this period. But his timely peak in form could see him silence his doubters on the grandest stage at next year's Wold Cup in Russia.

Few expect England to make too much of an impression at the 2018 tournament, and a quarter-final run would have to be regarded as a success. But with the likes of Kane, Dele Alli, John Stones and Sterling, there is a base of promising young stars at manager Gareth Southgate's disposal. In his current fettle, Sterling is looking the most dependable of the bunch.

For the adversity he has overcome both in his personal life Sterling's father was killed when the player was just nine years old and in his career, faced as he has been with harsh treatment from press and fans alike, Sterling deserves credit for remaining professional and focussing on his development.

Already looking a shoo-in for this season's Young Player of the Year award, Sterling is only just getting started.

This article was written for Soccer Box by Ryan Baldi. The online football store is the place to shop for your Manchester City soccer jersey, England kit and more.