Fight, fight, fight! Is Sterling in England’s best XI?

Date published: Wednesday 31st March 2021 6:39 - Will Ford

Sterling England

Raheem Sterling has started all 16 competitive England games for which he’s been available since the 2018 World Cup, in which he started all but the damp squib against Belgium. He’s undoubtedly in Gareth Southgate’s first XI. But should he be?

Sit back while Will Ford argues with himself…


Yes – he’s a goal contribution machine
In those 16 competitive games, Sterling has scored 12 goals, including a hat-trick against upcoming Euro 2020 opponents Czech Republic, and contributed nine assists. Comparable players – Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford – have eight and 11 goal contributions to Sterling’s 21 in that time. It’s a ridiculously good record, bettered only by Harry Kane on 24.

What Kane hasn’t done is win. And only four members of the current England squad have won a league title: Kyle Walker, John Stones, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling. Other than that it’s an assortment of losers of varying degrees. Sterling played a huge part in two Premier League title triumphs, comfortably reaching double figures for goals and assists in both and is on course to do the same this season. Winning is a habit and Sterling and his Man City chums will have been biting their collective nails for six months leading into the Euros this summer.

An international manager – who has little time to coax a team into a preferred style – is likely to select their team not just on talent, or form, but also based on who they play for. The energetic, ball-winning ethos Guardiola has demanded of Sterling for the last five seasons is ingrained and therefore easily transferrable to the international stage, where Southgate craves the same. What is second nature to Sterling is more alien to the likes of Rashford or Sancho, who are more used to sitting and breaking for Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund.

England’s possession-based style will benefit from players used to exactly that; no player is better versed than Sterling.


No – he’s a wasteful flat-track bully
In the 31 games Sterling has played for England against teams currently ranked in FIFA’s top 40, he’s scored two goals, both in the 3-2 Nations League win over Spain in 2018. In 12 major tournament appearances he’s failed to score and has registered just two assists. On the international stage, he’s a flat-track bully.

Oh, and two (or one?) can play at the let’s-manipulate-stats-to-make-a-point racket. Taking each player’s last four appearances, Sterling has made fewer goal contributions (2) than Rashford (4), Phil Foden (4), Ben Chilwell (4), Mason Mount (3), Kane (3), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (3) and – spread over five-and-a-half years – Luke Shaw (3).

And what’s this Premier League winning nonsense about? Surely the Champions League is a better comparison and City have a rotten record under Guardiola in that competition, with Sterling scoring six goals in 21 knockout games. Again indicating that against the very best, he comes up short.

If this England team is to be selected on form, Sterling shouldn’t be in it. For an outstandingly talented footballer – and he is that – he currently miscontrols the ball, fluffs chances and misplaces passes an awful lot – something that’s not gone unnoticed by Guardiola, who’s not played him in City’s last two games in favour of players who keep the ball far more easily.

He’s very quick, makes excellent runs and puts defences on the back foot, but in this possession-based style, a lot of that possession seems to end with Sterling; more frequently through a mistake rather than something productive. He may play for a club side similar in style to England, but is he any more wasteful than those who don’t?

And anyway, why is it just Rashford and Sancho he’s being compared to and not Jack Grealish? The England squad absentee has more goal contributions than Sterling this season from fewer games and creates far more chances. And let’s face it, he’s much better to watch. Put him in the team or there will be hell to pay, Gareth.

Sterling does contribute plenty, but he should contribute a hell of a lot more given the excellent positions he gets into. And part of the problem is that he knows that’s the case, leading him to force the play as he did frequently against San Marino, shooting or attempting to beat a man when a simple pass would have done the trick. He seems to be in a constant battle with himself to be good at football, while it comes very naturally to Grealish, Mount, Foden and Sancho, all of whom should be in ahead of Raheem.

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