Raheem Sterling finally ended his long wait for an England goal netting against European heavyweights Spain in Seville. It was his first England goal for 3 years, and it ultimately proved to be a vital one, putting England in charge against a formidable opponent.
Sterling also got his second England goal in the same match, leading some to believe that the floodgates could open for the attacker in terms of goals in international matches. Raheem Sterling is indeed ‘ready to rule’, but only in terms of his versatility, and not necessarily his ability in front of goal.
For all the hype, it should be remembered that his drought was an exceptionally long one, even for a quasi-striker, and the goals that preceded it came against two Baltic minnows, in the form of Lithuania (for his first goal) and Estonia. Ultimately, it cannot yet be said with great confidence that Sterling will become England’s primary source of goals after Harry Kane.
Three legends in one body: Blessing or curse?
For years, England have been in dire need of a player with the ability to play wide in midfield or centrally up front, and look equally comfortable in either position. While he doesn’t yet have the same venomous delivery as David Beckham, the ball-play and centric vision of Paul Gascoigne, or the cold-hearted finishing ability of Gary Lineker, Sterling can at least emulate each of those England legends to some extent, depending on the in-play situation.
However, doing so consistently is extremely difficult, and players will always prefer to adopt one role rather than two or three, provided that it produces winning football. Against the likes of Estonia, playing three roles simultaneously is nothing for a player of Sterling’s ability, but there needs to be more simplicity in the definition of his exact role against tougher teams. Against Spain, he was the man who enabled England to match the hosts in terms of their wide threat, and it was a gamble that paid off, as he thrived in an all-out wide attacking role.
Against other teams, such as the highly physical Croatia – who await England in the Three Lions’ final Nations League group match – it would perhaps be wiser for him to stay slightly further back and hit early crosses. Alternatively, he could act as more of a playmaker than a support striker behind Kane in the stricken Dele Alli’s stead. This would provide an element of surprise for a Croatia defence that is far from infallible, and may ultimately prove more productive than his approach in the World Cup semi-finals.
At the World Cup, his continual efforts to cut inside the likes of Vida proved fruitless, and ultimately illustrated that he is not a typical ‘goal machine’ – he is much more than just that.
Eleven heroes needed, not just one, in looming Croatia showdown.
The desire for a true figure of inspiration is understandable, amongst a fanbase that has known nothing but frustration and despair for generations. However, Sterling’s impact can only be finite in terms of pure results, even if his efforts at club level – which help to keep Man City as the high buy/sell to win the Premier League on SportingIndex.com – translate to the international stage. In practice, he is at risk of being subjected to the sort of pressure that even players in their late twenties struggle to shoulder.
Ultimately, the focus should be on how England can become a team with eleven heroes, and fight as one, rather than a side with three ‘heroes’ and eight passengers. There were hints of that idea being realised at the World Cup, and Sterling has every right to feel optimistic about his future as a major player for England. However, his prowess in attack, be it direct or indirect, is nothing without a more composed defence. He is good, but not good enough to carry an entire team, and nor should he have to be.
If England’s defeats in the World Cup, their late conceded goal against Colombia in the last 16, and the reverse Nations League encounter with Spain proved anything, it is that there is still much work to be done.
Only a win against Croatia on 18 November will be enough to keep England in contention for a Nations League playoff spot, and there is every chance that Southgate’s setup will rely on Sterling being at peak form. Yet, if the old saying ‘you are only as good as your last game’ proves true, then England fans can expect another highly productive night from the City slicker.