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England's saviour: Sterling is Southgate's most important player at Euro 2020

17:00 BST 02/07/2021
Raheem Sterling England
From his link-up play to his finishing, the Manchester City forward has shrugged aside his indifferent club form to help England to the last eight

England’s victory over Germany on Tuesday evening was a moment of glorious vindication for Gareth Southgate; a powerful rebuttal to all those who questioned the logic of his choices. And the grand symbol of that moment is Raheem Sterling.

Sterling is ready to be England’s hero, England’s saviour. The 26-year-old, who grew up a stone’s throw from Wembley, has long been the subject of abuse from sections of the press in England despite a glittering career for club and country.

Here is a man consistently and bitterly attacked, loaded with blame for all of England’s failures, on the precipice of becoming a national treasure. It is testament to his character and strength of will that Sterling has risen above it to become Southgate’s most important player at Euro 2020.

And while the story has focused largely on trust between manager and player, and on the changing narrative from Sterling as ‘typical Southgate’s typically unimaginative selection’ to ‘our Gareth picking the right man at the right moment’, not enough attention has been paid to the tactical reasons for his inclusion.

Much has been made of Sterling’s explosive turnaround in goalscoring form, when a strike against Spain in 2018 ended a three-year barren spell and began a sequence that now reads 15 goals in 20 England caps. Southgate himself has spoken of Seville being “a lift-off moment for him” that helped Sterling feel “happy in our environment”.

But there is much more to it than that. What Sterling offers England – and, crucially, what neither Jack Grealish nor Jadon Sancho could – is a buzzing, ferreting sense of purpose both on and off the ball.

What does not perhaps translate on television screens is the sheer tenacity of his playing style, the sense that danger lurks on the flank when Sterling is there to drive head first into encounters against a bedraggled central defence. Sancho is more direct; clean-cut in his dribbling. Grealish is a slower, more delicate playmaker.

Neither quite plays with Sterling’s perseverance, and while at times this can seem like a futile pursuit – especially when the end product doesn’t come – it disrupts and pokes and stretches in a way that is invaluable to the more measured rhythms of England’s setup.

It is noteworthy that Sterling ranks 11th at Euro 2020 for dribbles and 13th for progressive runs, a WyScout metric that counts very time a player’s run with the ball takes their team ‘significantly closer to the opponent goal’.

Then there is Sterling’s tactical intelligence, a spatial awareness and positional instinct absorbed from five years of elite coaching under Pep Guardiola and Manchester City.

Sterling reads the pattern of a game and reacts accordingly, finding the pockets of space between the lines – re-imagining his interactions in the half-spaces – like any Guardiola player must.

The best example at Euro 2020 was Sterling’s response to a difficult opening 12 minutes for England against Germany, when Joachim Low’s side started to overrun a worried-looking central midfield.

Bukayo Saka’s surging runs down the right were widely credited for England fighting their way into the contest, when in fact it was a subtle positional shift from the alert Sterling that did the trick.

Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips were struggling, and whenever they had the ball there was nobody available to play the progressive forward pass that would relieve pressure and force Germany backwards.

And so, after that nervy first 10 minutes, Sterling began to drop infield into the half-space, demanding the ball and offering an easy pass through the lines. It was subtle but intelligent and effective, a clear sign that Sterling was quietly working out the game as others scrambled.

Sterling’s main impact at Euro 2020 has been that goalscoring touch, and here again we see Guardiola’s influence.

All three of his goals so far have been scored within eight yards of goal and between the posts and all, in different ways, like a clinical number nine: the first a header from a cross after lurking in the six-yard box; the second an excellent out-to-in run through on goal; and the third a checked run to feed a low cross into the bottom corner.

That is not something we typically associate with a winger, but under Guardiola Sterling has been taught to come in off the wing when attacks are building, acting more like an inside forward than the chalk-on-the-boots winger we got to know in his Liverpool days.

To illustrate Guardiola’s influence, in his first season in charge at Man City Sterling scored seven league goals, almost exactly hitting his career average to that point. In the following years Sterling has scored 18, 17, 20, and 10 Premier League goals by darting into the box at the right moment.

This movement is essential for England because Harry Kane tends to operate like a No.10, and it is to Southgate’s credit that he has recognised the importance of Sterling inside the penalty area.

Despite the clamour to put more ‘exciting’ – read: new – attackers into the team, it is hard to imagine Sancho or Grealish providing direct centre-forward play between the posts.

For many, the defining image of Sterling is of profligate finishing, and it is true his composure can let him down. But that does not really conform to the statistics. A fairer reflection of what he offers England would be an image of a scurrying, hustling winger pulling defenders out of position and popping up to score crucial goals.

But the image of Sterling that most clearly flashes through the mind this week – the one that will make the montages whenever England’s tournament ends – is that shot of Raheem, hands on head, watching Thomas Muller bear down on goal.

The mistake could have rewritten the narrative and that is the razor-thin line between success and failure in the sudden death of knockout football.

Thankfully, England survived, and whatever happens next this will be the summer in which Sterling’s value to England – not just as goalscorer, but creator and disrupter – is finally recognised.