Why Pochettino should name Raheem Sterling Chelsea captain over three alternatives

Will Ford
Raheem Sterling is among the candidates being considered by Mauricio Pochettino to be the new Chelsea captain.
Raheem Sterling is among the candidates being considered by Mauricio Pochettino to be the new Chelsea captain.

There will be plenty of Chelsea fans who would rather see the back of Raheem Sterling than have him named captain, but without many to choose from, Mauricio Pochettino could do a lot worse…

Cesar Azpilicueta has gone to Atletico Madrid after 11 years at Chelsea, leaving the club without a captain and with a dearth of experience further depleted by the departures of Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante in quick succession. Mason Mount and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have also left to add to an uncomfortable feeling that very few at Chelsea still ‘get’ the club. Their three-longest serving players provide pretty damning evidence of that reality.

Asked in his first Chelsea press conference who he was considering as the club’s next captain, Mauricio Pochettino kept his cards close to his chest.

“I think I need to feel the players, I need to feel the commitment, I need to feel the character and personalities. One thing is looking from outside, another is when you are working with them – for positive and not so positive.”

Reports suggest Thiago Silva – the obvious choice – is joined by Reece James, Kepa Arrizabalaga and Raheem Sterling ‘on Pochettino’s shortlist’.

Silva has captained Brazil and Paris Saint-Germain and at the age of 38 was Chelsea’s best player last season. But he is 38, and with Benoit Badiashile, Wesley Fofana, Levi Colwill and Trevoh Chalobah as centre-back alternatives, Silva will likely – and frankly hopefully, given that will mean those very talented alternatives will be realising their outstanding potential – play more of a bit-part role in 2023/24.

Reece James is a Chelsea captain in the making (if they don’t sell him to one of their rivals in the meantime), but is still only 23 and needs to focus on playing rather than leading after a horrific injury-ravaged run.

Eyebrows will be raised highest over the possibility of Kepa being named Chelsea captain, given there are a fair few fans bemused by Pochettino’s apparent willingness to continue with the Spaniard as No.1 next season. Pochettino may not care about the fans’ reaction, but he should; as Graham Potter found to his detriment, the Chelsea faithful are a powerful bunch and Todd Boehly’s ears eventually bent as they screamed Expelliarmus from the Shed End last season. Naming Kepa captain would not provide a stable base for Pochettino to build a relationship with the masses.

The same may well be true were Pochettino to opt for Sterling, who is yet to convince the majority of Chelsea fans, many of whom would not have him in the starting line-up next season before inevitable bemusement and frustration come Christmas at the lack of goals scored by preferred wingers Mykhaylo Mudryk and Noni Madueke.

Sterling’s modest return of nine goals made him Chelsea’s top scorer last season and as things stand he remains the club’s most potent forward option, along with perhaps Christopher Nkunku, depending on how the Frenchman adapts to life in the Premier League in his first season.

Christopher Nkunku celebrates with a balloon after scoring for RB Leipzig.

And Sterling’s experience can pay in terms of leadership as well as in front of goal, with his calm demeanour and knowledge of the game a key reason he was part of the leadership group under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

“People ask for my opinion a lot and I have quite a say in the changing room. It’s about being natural,” Sterling said back in 2019 when asked about his leadership style at City. And while some nonsense rumours have linked Sterling with an exit this summer, his comments at the end of last season made clear his desire to meet the Chelsea challenge head on.

“This might sound a bit weird, but it is also a great learning curve. It’s been pretty smooth sailing winning, winning and winning but sometimes in life stuff gets thrown at you and it is a challenge that I’m looking forward to, hitting it head on and not trying to hide from it.”

It’s the sort of message that you could imagine him delivering to a young Chelsea group at the start of their pre-season tour, and his thoughts on what the manager’s role should be will undoubtedly chime with Pochettino, who could lean on Sterling to be the on-pitch agent of his ideals.

“I’m not one to tell the club what to do but from what I can gauge from where I was previously, organisation is the most important thing. Having a manager that has the final say on everything and it being his way with everyone having to follow that. Successful teams always have a manager that comes in, brings his blueprint and everyone follows. If there are people that don’t follow, then they are not part of the team and that is how brutal it needs to be at a high level.”

Gareth Southgate talked about Sterling’s “maturity and influence” when he promoted him to the England leadership group. Young players revealed he was “one of the first they speak about making them feel really comfortable”, which is going to be vital at Chelsea, where there are a host of very talented but very young players who need to feel at home if they are to succeed in a highly pressurised environment.

Sterling needs to perform if he’s to be a playing captain, but he’s shown for England and Manchester City that he shines when given added responsibility. And handing him the captaincy will undoubtedly ramp up the pressure under which he thrives, with criticism bouncing off his thick skin and balls – by hook or by crook – finding the back of the net.