Matthew Upson would consider replacing Raheem Sterling when England’s World Cup campaign resumes against Panama on Sunday, but not because the Manchester City forward’s display in the 2-1 defeat of Tunisia was poor.
Sterling was one of several England players to spurn good goal-scoring opportunities in Volgograd on a wasteful night for Gareth Southgate’s side, who dominated and should have picked up the three points more easily.
The 23-year-old Sterling has not scored an international goal since October 2015, despite a career-best season at club level this past year, and he was eventually substituted in the 68th minute on Monday night with Marcus Rashford taking his place.
Even though he was not the only member of Southgate’s line-up guilty of missing chances, Sterling’s starting spot is likely to come under scrutiny in the days before the meeting with Panama.
Upson, the last England player to score in the knockout stages of the World Cup, does not believe Sterling’s performance deserved criticism, but he would consider starting a more direct player against the next deep-set defence.
“I would keep it the same for Panama bar possibly changing Sterling,” the former defender, who won 21 caps at international level between 2003 and 2010, said. “I think that could be a change and not because he was bad.
“I don't think anyone needs to clamber over Sterling about his performance. For me, it wasn't that bad. It really wasn't. I just find that sometimes he gets himself in a place where he concedes possession of the ball. He gets caught up with a lot of bodies.
“I found it was happening especially towards the end, as we were trying to push and create something while they were sitting deeper at 1-1. That's where I think somebody – like the substitutions that came on – they were just a little more direct.
“When you have Alli and you have Lingard who can both play in that similar role in coming deep, going past people, then I think [it makes sense] having more of a runner – a Vardy, even Loftus-Cheek when he came on was looking to get in beyond all the time.”
Upson added: “Jamie Vardy would come on the pitch and he has something of a fearless attitude. He doesn't care what opposition he's playing against, he performs in the same way. I'm not sure Raheem has done that yet for England on a consistent basis.
“It's such a key position – that support role for Harry Kane. If he's not scoring, we need that player in there who's going to come up with a goal and so far, for England, he hasn't been able to do that and for me that's a bit of a concern.”
Upson tipped England to reach as far as the quarter-finals in Russia before the tournament started and while the victory in Volgograd has not changed his opinion, he is now more confident that a last-eight place will be secured.
“[Beating Tunisia] hasn't changed my opinion, it's just cemented it,” he said. “I think they've just cemented the fact that the work they've done over the two years with Gareth Southgate has had an impact and that's important.
“How they've trained, what the togetherness has been like, the system he's chosen – they've played it for quite a long time now. In previous tournaments we've approached by tinkering a little bit, looking at different things all the way to the end.
“It hasn't been like that this time. It's been very clear – this is how we're going to play and we've stuck to it. I think the players have absorbed that and we're performing like a team.”
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