Raheem Sterling is frequently subjected to harsh criticism from fans everytime he plays for the English national team. Such criticisms reveal how little the average football fan understands about his role in the team. While Sterling isn’t prolific in front of goal, his pace and work rate allow other attacking players around him to flourish.
At Man City Sterling generally takes up the wide right or wide left positions in a 4-3-3. This season he scored 18 goals and registered 11 assists in 29 league starts and four sub appearances, an incredible return for a winger. His ability to ghost into space around the back post, or through the centre, means he gets into scoring positions consistently, often from close up. For England, though, his scoring record is comparatively poor. So far, in 41 appearances he scored twice, both at Wembley both in home qualifies for Euro 2016, and both against Baltic nations (Estonia and Lithuania). Without an England goal since October 2015, but having scored so much in the league this season, people have decided that Sterling must under perform for his national team or even less logically, be a bad player.
Under Gareth Southgate, England have played a sort of 3-5-2 formation, with Sterling up front alongside Harry Kane, in front of an attacking looking midfield of Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli. Jordan Henderson sits in front of the back three while wing backs provide the width. The aim is to create movement between the lines and have players bursting into space to create attacking opportunities. Sterling is absolutely key to this. He is constantly moving, sometimes dropping as deep or even deeper than Henderson, to collect the ball from the centre backs.
This does one of two things: either a deep midfield marker goes with him, leaving space into which Lingard or Dele Alli can push up, or Kane can drop off, or a marker further forward comes inside leaving space for the wing backs or another midfielder moves to mark Sterling, leaving Henderson free for a pass. Sterling can also gather the ball. turn and carry it himself, running at the opposition defence causing them to change shape reactively, allowing players to run off him and putting England on the front foot from a deeper position on the pitch. The extremely physical marking and closing down of Sterling by Columbia for example shows that they knew exactly how important his dropping off was for creating space. Despite being underdogs on novibet.co.uk, Columbia still nearly caused an upset by shutting down the winger.
Sterling also drops off or moves wide when England are further up the pitch. Indeed, he and Kane are both very mobile as forwards, though Kane’s movement tends to be more vertical and less lateral. Sterling crops up across the pitch running on to passes wide right and left, dropping off to offer himself as an option irrespective of where he is and working consistently hard to make room for other players or carry the ball in the wide spaces and put in crosses. His assist for Lingard against Panama is a great example. Moving from a central space out to his left, Sterling takes the ball from Lingard surrounded by four Panama defenders, which makes space at the top of the box for a return pass and a shot from Lingard who scores. Because Sterling is still an attacking force, he runs him behind either down the line or diagonally into space behind the full-backs.
His pace is a real threat as is the movement that got him so many league goals this season but what has stood out is his hard work, incredible control and strength when dropping in and riding hard challenges, all in the service of the rest of the team. This effort extends to Sterling’s defensive work, chasing back when England’s initial press is broken either slowing attackers up before they make it to the defensive line with niggling tackles or helping to force them out wide.
Sterling might have only registered one assist and not scored this tournament but he has been absolutely key to Southgate’s style of play and the team’s system. He may not score goals but what he does allows others to, or at least find the space in which they can attack. He is still criticized despite this intelligence and hard work, speaks volumes about how some people fail to recognize what is happening in football or pursue agendas that have nothing to do with what’s on the pitch.