There is no denying that Raheem Sterling has enjoyed an amazing first half of his 2017/18 season with Manchester City. The young winger took his game from a one-dimensional pacey dribbler to a terrifying, multi-talented wide goalscorer. But can he lead the line for England at the World Cup?
His consistent and stellar performances have caught the eye of England coach Gareth Southgate, surely securing him a position not only in the squad that will travel to Russia but even among the elite strikers on whom England will rely for goal production. But is it a smart move to put so much on the shoulders of a player with only one real season of world class goalscoring?
Let’s think about the nature of the goals he scores for City. Very rarely do fans watch Sterling attempt a Robben-like run into the box to create a shot on goal for himself. Instead, he generally prefers to wait for play to develop down the left through Leroy Sane, lurking in the box until a shot is opportune. Alternatively, he makes a diagonal run into the box, looking for midfielders Kevin de Bruyne or David Silva to use their vision and technique to pick him out.
Regardless of the build up, Sterling almost always finishes quickly and tidily—rarely does he take more than two touches before a goal.
It becomes arguable, then, that Sterling has maybe less mastered the art of finishing than he has the Man City system. Granted, he does produce the occasional long-range curling effort, but he produces a tap-in far more often than some other complicated technique.
But, as previously explained, Sterling hasn’t improved in finishing as much as he has in situational awareness and positioning. For this reason, it might be unwise for Southgate to play Sterling as a striker, and to expect bags of goals from the man in blue. Sterling took advantage of the Man City system—the Pep Guardiola system—which would take England far more time than they have to rehearse.
It is probably better to play to Sterling’s other areas of improvement. His decision making is far better than it was just a year-and-a-half ago—perhaps Southgate will experiment with Sterling in a forward creative role, behind the already prolific Harry Kane. Decision making has also improved the success rate of his dribbles, so expect to see Raheem getting plenty of looks to run at defenders along the sidelines, when the time is right.
Will Sterling contribute loads of goals for England this summer? Probably not. But he still has a much larger responsibility in attacking build-up than he ever will have experienced before for his country.