There was a time, not so long ago, when boos and jeers were the soundtrack to Raheem Sterling’s England career. Forced to play with vile abuse from his own fans ringing in his ears, it seemed, for a spell, that his performances in the Three Lions shirt would be defined not by what he did on the pitch, but the baffling reaction he prompted off it.
Walking off the Wembley pitch after England’s thumping 5-0 win over Czech Republic on Friday night, though, Sterling bathed in adulation. His hat- trick illustrated the edge that has been added to his game over the past two seasons or so, becoming the English player of his generation alongside Harry Kane. How times have changed.
This hasn’t happened by accident, though. Sterling has worked hard at his development and he is now reaping the rewards, scoring 19 goals and contributing 11 assists for Manchester City so far this season, making the 24-year-old statistically the most productive attacking Premier League player for the 2018/19 campaign.
The arrival of Pep Guardiola was undoubtedly a turning point in Sterling’s career, with the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss moulding him into the perfect forward for his Manchester City system. And that’s just the thing – Sterling’s development has taken him so far that he can no longer be classed as a winger.
It’s true that Sterling remains a wide threat, starting on the left or right of a front three for both City and England. He plays off a central striker, whether that’s Sergio Aguero or Kane. However, he doesn’t hug the touchline in the way an archetypal winger does. This was obvious in the way Sterling scored England’s opening goal against Czech Republic.
With Kane deep with the ball at his feet, Sterling anticipated the pass out to Jadon Sancho behind the full back, making a pre-emptive run into the six-yard box to get on the end of the cross. All this played out exactly as Sterling subconsciously predicted, stretching to turn home Sancho’s low cross from close range. He saw it all before it even happened.
While Sterling previously could have been accused of being wasteful in front of goal, of spurning too many scoring opportunities to be considered a truly world-class talent, now he is a ruthless finisher. His mindset has changed in a way that draw comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo who moulded his game and decision-making process to become as efficient a forward as possible. Sterling has done something similar.
Having broken through as a teenager, it’s easy to forget that Sterling is still only 24 years old. He could feasibly become one of the best English footballers in history, embodying the national team’s new modern identity under Gareth Southgate. “I’m delighted for him to get the reaction that he did from the crowd,” said Southgate after the win over Czech Republic. “We can’t hide from the fact that he’s had difficult moments with England.
“The goals in Spain were an important moment for him. You could see the release that brought. At times, you could almost see the thought process in the past, but he’s hungry for goals. I know he’s spoken about that before, of how he’s added that incentive to his game, and I thought he was devastating tonight.”
The role Sterling now plays for City and England is similar to the one Mohamed Salah played for Liverpool last season, starting out wide, but driving into the middle to get on the end of crosses and to act, in the final phase of play, as a centre forward. This is what has made him such a potent threat this season and last.
Sterling’s development is complete. For both Man City and England, he has been moulded to fit a system. The 24-year-old still has to face tabloid bile from time to time, but the jeers from the stands have been replaced by the sound of cheers. Clutching his well-earned match ball as he walked back to the Wembley dressing room last week, Sterling presented a glorious image of what he has become.