Mauricio Pochettino insisted Raheem Sterling deserves the credit for turning his Chelsea career around after his two goals fired the team to a 3-0 victory over Luton at Stamford Bridge.
Sterling endured a disappointing debut campaign in west London but has looked a player transformed since his new manager took charge, and cemented a sensational return to form with a match-winning display against Rob Edwards’ newly promoted side.
His first strike was a particularly fine solo effort, cutting in from the wing and beating three defenders before sliding the ball home.
But it was his second midway through the second half that transformed the atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge, sweeping first-time into the bottom corner from Malo Gusto’s pinpoint cross.
Chelsea’s third – the first time in more than 10 months that they had held a three-goal lead in the Premier League – saw Sterling turn provider as his nonchalant ball driven into the centre was finished off by Nicolas Jackson for his first Chelsea goal.
And Pochettino said that ever since his first conversation with the player when he “held up a mirror” and asked him which position he most loves to play, the catalyst for change has all been down to Sterling.
“I can only talk from day one when we arrived,” said Pochettino. “We had a conversation. His commitment in the way that he wants to provide and contribute for the team, his work ethic and quality.
“I repeat again, I think he deserves the full credit for his performance. We’re very pleased and very happy, he has the quality and he can provide the team goals and assists. Then when we don’t have the ball, working really hard to recover it as soon as possible.
“I’m so pleased for him. He told me it was a difficult season for him last season. I’m very pleased when a player is happy, an offensive player who can score and assist, for us it’s the best feeling.
“Our first conversation with all the players, our conversation with Raheem, I love to ask the position they love to play, how they feel, how they see themselves; to put a player in front of the mirror.
“It’s not the position, it’s the animation and the way the team is going to link in between them. It’s to find the best position, the dynamic of the game when we are playing an offensive situation, to provide the best platform, position and place and link with the player where they can (show) their best quality.
“It’s really important, the process. Time to work to create all these links and this animation and to know each other, we need time. When you want to build a team in the process that we are, it’s matter of time.”
The crowning moment of Pochettino’s first win in charge came when summer signing Jackson was rewarded for an energetic, committed display by knocking in his first goal for the club.
The manager was full of praise for the 22-year-old’s performance and hinted that he has the potential to insert himself amongst the Premier League’s all-time goalscoring greats.
“We are not asking for him to run a lot and press and recover the ball, because it is his quality,” said Pochettino. “His work ethic is amazing and then he is fast, to run in behind the defensive line and then the quality into the feet.
“It’s only a matter of time that he’s going to score goals also. He’s amazing. It’s difficult to find a player like him in the market. For me he’s going to be one of the great strikers. He has the potential to be.”
Despite watching his side lose for the second time in two games since their top-flight return, Luton boss Edwards said his players could hold their heads up after competing well with Chelsea before Sterling’s decisive intervention caused the game to slip away.
“We don’t like losing, but I can accept it when there’s a performance like that,” he said.
“The players were committed, we gave it absolutely everything. We just came up short in both boxes. I’m extremely proud to be involved with this football club and these players.
“We were very resilient and incredibly brave. We went man for man, tried to press them, tried to take the ball. For a time in the second half, we had the territory. I could smell a goal coming, but it was them unfortunately.”