The most misunderstood player of his generation is at last getting the credit he deserves. Raheem Sterling is finally an England hero.
The winger’s performance in the 4-0 victory over Ukraine was sublime. Yet even in his less eye-catching displays the 26-year-old has an impact on games. Opposing teams double up on Sterling. It was noticeable in the World Cup semi-final against Croatia three years ago that the flow of the game turned against England after Gareth Southgate substituted the Manchester City man.
Denmark know that they will have to subdue Sterling at Wembley tomorrow if they are going to have any chance of reaching the final of Euro 2020.
Sterling’s appetite for international football is obvious. It is hard to believe that seven years ago Roy Hodgson caused serious damage to the player’s reputation by saying publicly that Sterling claimed to be too tired to represent his country in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Estonia. The national disapproval intensified later that week when a red-top tabloid produced front-page pictures of the teenager in a nightclub at 3am.
The basic premise of the outrage was flawed. Sterling never said he did not want to play – or even that he was weary. He merely told a member of the England staff that he felt heavy-legged. Hodgson misunderstood and hung his player out to dry.
By that time Sterling was already a folk devil in tabloid terms. He was labelled a money-grubber for forcing a move away from Liverpool to City. The split was mishandled by both parties but one thing is certain: Sterling was under-appreciated and hugely underpaid at Anfield. His eagerness to move was driven by professional pride. The contract offers Liverpool put on the table were insulting compared to the salaries being paid to teammates who were nowhere near as effective.
The easiest way to turn supporters against players is to accuse them of being greedy. Ashley Cole is still referred to as ‘Cashley’ because he wrote in his autobiography that he was insulted by a proposed £5,000-per-week pay rise at Arsenal. The figure involved was less important than what it implied. Some of Cole’s colleagues were being paid considerably more than the left-back even though he was one of the team’s best players. He wanted respect and the only way to show that was parity with the club’s big earners. Sterling was in a similar position.
Cole and Sterling – arguably the most consistently high-class performers of their respective England generations – suffered as media whipping boys. They became targets for abuse from the stands. Ugly racial undertones characterised the opprobrium from the tabloids and the terraces.
The former Chelsea full-back never rehabilitated his reputation, but Sterling has turned things around. In part this is because there has been a recognition that latent racism has played a role in the discourse around the player. When Cole was being put through the wringer more than a decade ago, there was a delusional pretence that race was not a factor.
The other reason is that Sterling has gotten better and better. He always had a huge amount of talent, but there were weaknesses in his game. His crossing did not match his approach work and his shooting was poor. Since he moved to the Etihad Stadium, he has put massive efforts into improving in both areas. England are reaping the benefits.
Defenders find it hard to read Sterling. Most dribblers have tells: small movements that indicate to full-backs which way the winger will go. Most often it is a drop of the shoulder. Sterling does something different.
As he approaches his opponent, he lifts both hands up so his palms are around chest height and facing his rival. It is hard to discern which direction he will take. The unusual movement unnerves defenders and means midfielders have to track back to offer extra help against him. This frees up space for teammates.
He is also prepared to do the dirty work. From his earliest days at Anfield, Sterling was diligent about his defensive duties and helped out the full-back. His capacity to press improved considerably after the move to City. Some wingers switch off when the opposition has the ball. Sterling rarely does.
Southgate has a multitude of options going forward and is able to call upon the most talented set of attackers in European football. Sterling is the key man in the group. He has always been vital to England’s success and the nation is recognising just how good he is.
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