We’ve been here before: on the eve of a major tournament, with a debate raging over whether Raheem Sterling deserves his place in the England squad.
While his record at international level and at major finals remains impressive, his club form for Chelsea does not make much of a case for his inclusion in the World Cup just two weeks away.
Sterling has scored twice in the Champions League since the start of September, but after failing to get a shot in Sunday’s defeat to Arsenal, he has now gone 596 minutes without a Premier League goal or assist, a run dating back to the end of August.
It hardly helps that he hasn’t had a regular role either. Whether on the wing, winger or striker, Blues manager Graham Potter appears unsure of how to get the best out of the 27-year-old, or even what his best position is.
“I still rate Raheem very highly but he looks a bit lost,” said former England defender Micah Richards, who watched Sterling against the Gunners for MOTD2.
“It’s like he’s a bit frustrated in terms of Chelsea’s set-up and tactically doesn’t know what they want him to do.”
A big move – then a new manager
Losing his way was not the scenario Sterling envisioned when he mapped out his £50million switch from Manchester City to Stamford Bridge in July.
Sterling was scouted by Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, but appeared to be impressed through the vision of then manager Thomas Tuchel, and also the role he has mapped out for him in his team.
Less than two months later, however, Tuchel was history. Potter is now plotting Chelsea’s future, but his frequent adjustments in formation and tactics suggest he is unsure of the best way to use many members of his new squad, including Sterling.
“Raheem joined another top club in Chelsea and it seemed like the perfect move for him,” added Richards. “But then they changed managers and we all saw the upheaval that followed.
“After a manager signs you and says you’re their top man, like Tuchel did with Sterling, it must be frustrating when a new manager comes in and wants to use you differently.
“Every player just wants a bit of stability. I think he’s in good hands with Potter – let’s make that clear – but it’s down to him to get the best out of Sterling now.”
‘Get Sterling on the ball close to goal’
Sterling scored 131 goals in 339 games for City, with his trademark finishing seeing him arrive to complete a stunning move at the back post.
He has been much less productive since joining Chelsea – probably because he gets far fewer chances in front of goal.
|Man City 2021-22||Chelsea 2022-23|
|40.1||Fewer per shot||56.5|
|49%||On Target %||39%|
|175.9||Minus per goal||339|
“The reason he was so effective at City was because he was part of a system that worked,” Richards explained. “He knew the system, and he fitted it because the runs he made were exactly what the team needed.
“City also played the same way every week, dominating the ball with 70-80% possession, but now they are in a team in transition after changing managers, and seem to be changing formations all the time.
“The whole team is still figuring out how they play under Potter, so Sterling is not the only one who has to work it out.
“Using him in different positions hasn’t helped. Ideally I want to see him high and wide on the pitch, preferably on the left so he can go either way – inside or outside – when he runs into the box.
“But whatever you call his role, you want him on the ball close to goal, not in his own half to run 60 or 70 meters to get a shooting opportunity.
“For City, he always picked up the ball inside the opposition half. When he made his runs into the area, he knew the ball was coming because of the players they had in their squad to provide for him.
“It’s not the case playing for Chelsea – he has to create things himself.”
Should he start against Iran?
Sterling also had a difficult time ahead of last year’s European Championship, when his goals dried up for City and he found himself on the bench for their biggest games.
However, Southgate remained loyal, and Sterling repaid him by scoring three goals to help England reach the final, as well as earning himself a place in the team of the tournament.
Will the Three Lions boss do the same this time when he picks his side to face Iran in their opener in Qatar on November 21?
“Obviously you want your players to be fit, but I think Gareth will stick with him this time as well, and I can understand why after what he’s done for him in the past,” Richards said.
“He hasn’t played well all season, but at least he’s playing a lot, which is what he wanted when he left City.
“I would also start him against Iran, as part of a front three with Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane. He deserves that belief, after what he has done for England in the past.
“Let’s see how he does in the first game and judge after that. If he doesn’t do anything, then maybe it’s time to rotate.
“But we’ve seen Raheem react before after basically being written off for England and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him remind everyone how good he is.”