How to solve a problem like Raheem

Last night’s dramatic late win over Tunisia brought with it some key statistics:

  • Harry Kane’s first ever goals in a major tournament
  • The first time an England player scored two goals in a World Cup match since Gary Lineker against Cameroon in 1990
  • Raheem Sterling has now failed to score in his last 21 international matches, scoring only two goals in a total of 39 caps.

Following a hugely successful season with Manchester City in which he won his first Premier League trophy and scored a personal best 23 goals, his international form is of real concern for England’s tournament hopes.

A press vendetta

It’s been a strange summer for Sterling. Getting a tattoo on his leg, after the shameful way he spent money on his loving mother, has turned him into the poster boy for the supposed excesses of the modern young footballer.

Sterling has been the victim of a strange, mean-spirited campaign from certain quarters of the press – an operation with alarming racist undertones. That sickening little hack crusade could have de-railed even the most hardened of characters.

As it stands though, Sterling seems like, if you cut through the commotion, a perfectly normal and level-headed young man. And what a ridiculous overreaction for a story which essentially should have read, ‘man gets tattoo’.

Even so, all of this bluster threatens to miss the main point at issue here – his form for England is wreaking the place out.

Attacking intent against Tunisia

Last night, Sterling had to wait only four minutes of the Tunisia match for a chance to prove his doubters wrong, but he made a real mess of his finish.

The linesman flagged for offside but he was unaware. Sterling could only gamely laugh off what was a bizarre finish.

He was not the only one wasteful in front of goal, but this was a golden chance to kick-start his tournament in style. Lingard and Alli had chances and also looked worryingly short of composure.

This is not to single out Sterling as the only misfiring England attacker, simply that the longer this barren spell goes on, the more difficult it will become for him.

Southgate’s formation suggested Sterling would play in a fluid front two with Kane, although in reality it meant he was the most advanced of England’s attacking midfielders lying just behind the Tottenham striker.

Sterling bravely continued running in behind the Tunisian backline but to no avail.

Whichever way you cut it, if Sterling is to play in such an advanced position, he needs a goal, and quickly.

Criticism from Carragher

On the Telegraph’s World Cup podcast Jamie Carragher was typically forthright about Sterling’s hopes for a starting berth, instead claiming we could play two up front.

“I don’t think there’s a great goalscoring record from the players supporting Harry Kane – Sterling, Dele Alli, Lingard.

You may as well actually play with a striker, rather than Sterling playing there and dropping deep because there’s enough players there already”

The point Carragher makes is a fair one – that having Sterling play alongside Kane is basically just mimicking a traditional ‘two up front’, so you may as well start with a more natural goalscorer in Vardy.

It all feels too knee-jerky and simplistic though, as Sterling is a key component of England’s pressing early into matches as the attacking trio behind Kane look to hunt in packs.

The notion of having less defensively-minded players against Belgium is definitely not a comfortable one.

Raheem in Rio

It’s easy to forget that heading into the World Cup in Brazil four years ago, Sterling was our number one hope. Every major tournament in this country tends to have one player who we simply cannot afford to get injured (think 2002 Beckham, 2010 Rooney, 2018 Kane etc.). In 2014, Sterling was that man.

He nearly started the tournament in perfect fashion, although what appeared to be an early goal against Italy actually only hit the side netting. Ask most England fans, and they’ll remember that scenario like a JFK moment.

The pub I was in celebrated for a solid 5-10 minutes before realising there was a problem, the scoreboard was broken and it still read ‘0-0’.

In the end, neither Sterling nor his teammates proved themselves in what was a wash-out tournament for England. The hype around Sterling on the international stage simply disappeared with that tournament.

Stick with him for the Panama match

In my ratings of the England players’ performances last night, I wrote that Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Marcus Rashford deserve a place in the starting line-up against Panama.

While they showed real promise and a renewed sense of urgency from the bench, I now think that keeping Sterling in the team to get on the scoresheet against a very weak Panama side would be the best option.

Gareth Southgate has shown consistent bravery in selecting his England squad in the face of widespread criticism.

Now is the time for the boss to continue his patience with Sterling and get his tally up and running if we have real aspirations of heading into the final stages of the tournament.

 

Chris Henderson

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