It is rare for a young player to attract the level of criticism endured by Raheem Sterling, but the former Liverpool star has been on the receiving end of more than his share of abuse and unfair scrutiny, perceived by some to be overrated and by others to be selfish.
Yet the notion that Sterling is some kind of representative of wasted talent has long since ceased to have any basis. The England forward has been one of the stars of Manchester City’s Premier League challenge, scoring 20 goals in all competitions and averaging 2.5 shots and 1.6 key passes per game. This represents quite a turnaround on last season when Sterling appeared to be a peripheral figure, and as late as August, he was linked with a move to Arsenal as part of a proposed deal for Alexis Sánchez.
The arrival of Bernardo Silva for £43 million in the summer seemed to suggest that Sterling might be on the way out, but instead he has been a player rejuvenated this season, and much of the credit for that goes to Pep Guardiola, who has been steadfastly loyal to the young star, praising him repeatedly and emphasising his importance to the team.
England fans will also be taking note of Sterling’s domestic resurgence as they try to find reasons for optimism ahead of this summer’s World Cup. The nation doesn’t appear to have much faith in the Three Lions, however, and anyone fancying a bet on England to lift the golden trophy will find that most experts see them as seventh favourites. How has Sterling improved at Manchester City, and, most importantly for England fans, can he transfer his form to the international stage?
Although Guardiola makes a habit of rotating his forwards, Sterling has grabbed every opportunity he has been given, scoring vital goals in the autumn against Napoli, Bournemouth and Everton. His improved confidence appears to be partly due to the presence of the full-backs operating behind him. Kyle Walker, Danilo and Fabian Delph represent a significant upgrade, and with the defensive support and dynamic overlapping that they have provided, Sterling, like Leroy Sané on the other side of the pitch, has flourished.
His improved confidence is evident in almost all the statistical measures of his performance. He has had almost 50 per cent more touches in the box this season than last, has increased his pass completion rate to well over 50 per cent, and has more than doubled his shot conversion percentage, resulting in his impressive goal tally. He has even been used in a false-nine or number ten position by Guardiola, with some success, hinting at an evolution into a Messi-style complete forward rather than simply a flying winger.
Can he produce the same style of play and the same level of excellence in an England shirt? The evidence is limited so far. His last two matches for the national side came last autumn, when he was substituted for tactical reasons at half-time against Malta, and was then deployed as a number ten in the home game against Slovenia, with limited success.
England manager Gareth Southgate has taken the Guardiola approach, praising Sterling publicly, and he will hope that his faith will pay dividends. This young, often uncertain England side could certainly benefit from a confident, freewheeling Sterling.
One thing that could be in his favour is the presence of his Manchester City teammate Kyle Walker at right-back for England. Walker’s deputy Kieran Trippier is also a dynamic, attack-minded full-back who will be able to offer Sterling the kind of support and defensive cover that he needs to unleash his full range of attacking talents. With a full season under his belt, along with what looks like being a Premier League winner’s medal, Sterling’s confidence should be sky high by the time he boards the flight to Russia.
Still, before England fans get carried away, history suggests that Premier League stars often fail to reproduce their domestic heroics on the international stage. Sometimes that has been down to the international manager asking them to play in a different way or to fulfil a different role, but usually the problem is one of technique. In a top Premier League side, surrounded by the best players in the world, English players usually provide the pace, strength and competitive spirit, but transplant them to a less-gifted England team and they seem suddenly less effective. The knotty problem of England players making the transition to international football – as the career of John Barnes demonstrated – goes back many years.
However, it is also fair to say that Sterling is young enough and talented enough to transcend the limitations of playing in an ordinary England team. While we haven’t yet seen the best of him in an England shirt, this summer’s World Cup offers an ideal opportunity for him to prove his critics wrong once and for all and inspire England to greater heights.