We live in a world where footballers’ personal lives are subject to as much forensic detailing as what they do on the football pitch, but since his move to Manchester City, no other English player has attracted the same level of vitriol as Raheem Sterling.
It makes you wonder: are people’s personal opinions of the player completely blinding them to the fact that he is a good footballer? Because now, in Pep Guardiola, Sterling finally has someone at a club that can manage the man as well as the footballer; something that can only be considered a positive for his role within the national team.
There are few players who divide opinion like Sterling, but from the time he raced onto the scene for Liverpool people have been questioning whether he is all speedy runs and pretty flicks, or if there is some substance underneath the pretty pictures he draws with his feet?
With 29 caps for the Three Lions, the young Sterling will soon be considered among the more senior members of the squad. If he wants to prove how good he is, he needs to become the man that England and its manager Gareth Southgate can rely on to produce consistently. What better test to start with, than a friendly at World Cup holders Germany?
Having come up through the ranks of the international stage with the under-16’s, Sterling is a perfect example of this new England manifesto we keep hearing about. A player who, if successful, can show others that the route to the top lies through the youth teams. Like several English players before him, the former Queens Park Rangers man has his career in his own hands. The ability to ignore the furore and have confidence in his own talent is possibly more important than his talent itself.
Although he only played 192 minutes of a possible 320 at last summer’s European Championships – and none in the stalemate with Slovakia – he became the scapegoat for a national team whose problems run far deeper than any one player.
The change in him under Guardiola has been almost instant; a player who looked like he was carrying the weight of a nation on his slim shoulders in the summer suddenly started playing with a freedom and confidence not seen since his Liverpool days. Alongside Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling took the Reds to the brink of the 2013/14 Premier League title with nine goals in 33 games before Steven Gerrard’s unfortunate slip ended their hopes.
Of course, his performances at the Etihad are flattered by the world class stars he plays with, but his Spanish manager is well known for putting his arm around a player, and clearly it is working for the 22-year-old.
When you compare his stats to Man City’s other attackers, Sterling stands up well. He is third behind Kevin de Bruyne (74) and David Silva (59) with 37 chances created in 25 league games, and with those two stars typically playing centrally for the Citizens, it’s a respectful return for Sterling. Add to that his six assists and he is already ahead of the two he achieved last season in 31 Premier League games. Then there are the two Champions League goals—against Celtic and Monaco—in seven European games.
Sterling’s inability to sense the danger of his opponents’ defenders means his attacks are often halted in their infancy, but that decision making will undoubtedly improve with age and experience. Although the trouble he caused James Milner in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with former side Liverpool mean he may still be learning when to make the right decision.
And while two goals in 29 England appearances are not enough for a player of his attacking style, like many wingers before him, Sterling needs to figure out when to shoot rather than pass. With the likes of Andros Townsend and Theo Walcott out of favour, he will be the man his teammates are looking to when they make those runs and he won’t want to disappoint.
With the new England regime under Southgate about to kick-start, Sterling can remind the Three Lions fans why they were so excited in his early appearances for his country.
There is no reason he cannot be the real creative outlet that the national team has been craving for so long. Even the best country’s defenders will struggle to contain his pace and ingenuity if he can learn to use it properly.