Going into Euro 2020, there were very few England fans who wanted Raheem Sterling to start. And there’s a good reason for this too.
He was in awful form for Manchester City, scoring just once in his last 16 appearances and drawing a blank in the Champions League final.
By contrast, Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish had been one of the standout players in the Premier League, and Manchester United transfer target Jadon Sancho had enjoyed a fine end to the season with Borussia Dortmund, including a brace in the DFB Pokal final. When it came to form, Sterling was way behind his teammates.
Nonetheless, Gareth Southgate persisted with the winger, prompting all the typical shouts of favouritism and big club bias.
Sterling has repaid his manager’s faith with winning goals against Croatia and Czech Republic – the only two goals that England have scored at the tournament so far.
But this hasn’t silenced the doubters, who still hope that Sancho comes into the starting XI for the round of 16. Some people even wondered if Sancho was being pressured to join Manchester United in order to get more chances in the national team setup.
You’ve got to wonder: would any other nation even consider dropping the man who has scored 100% of their goals at the tournament?
Yes, the two finishes were fairly easy. Yes, he maybe could have had more. But you’ve got to be in the positions to get these chances in the first place.
This is where Sterling excels. It’s no coincidence that both of those chances fell to him. It’s that same movement and intelligence that has seen him become so effective under Pep Guardiola at Man City.
Over the three group stage games, the Three Lions have looked most threatening when Sterling was making those runs in behind and getting into promising areas. He’s the best runner in the squad by quite some distance.
And this is where England fans can get frustrated. He gets in so many good areas but can often hesitate and subsequently squander the chance.
One wonders whether more would have come of the attack if Grealish had been on the ball instead.
But Grealish probably wouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. He’s a player who prefers to come short and get the ball to feet.
When you’ve already got the likes of Harry Kane, Phil Foden and Mason Mount in your starting XI, you don’t need another player who wants the ball to his feet.
And it’s not as simple as ‘tell Sancho to run in behind then – he’s quick’. Yes, he is. But his natural inclination is to come short for the ball.
It’s how he’s played his entire career for Borussia Dortmund. Giving him an instruction won’t change his instincts overnight. It could take time to adapt.
Whereas Sterling’s first thought is to make that run in behind. He’s been doing it for years at club level, and that’s why he’s so good at it. It’s natural to him, and it’s how he got his goal against Croatia.
Having that runner is incredibly useful because it forces teams to drop deeper. If opponents play a high line, they risk allowing too much space behind.
As a result, the defensive line goes back an extra ten yards, giving more space on the ball for the more technical players.
That’s not to say that every team needs a runner. Spain in 2012, for example, defeated Italy 4-0 in the final with a front three of Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva. All three are technical players who aren’t exactly blessed with pace.
But that Spain team had an unbelievable midfield who would keep 80% possession each game. England don’t have this.
This is the problem that England may face against the bigger sides. The central midfield options at Southgate’s disposal are Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips, Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham.
These are good players in their own right, but they will struggle to control games against top-class teams.
Have a look at some of the favourites for the tournament and who they’ve got in midfield.
France – Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante.
Belgium – Kevin De Bruyne, Youri Tielemans.
Germany – Toni Kroos, Ilkay Gundogan.
Italy – Manuel Locatelli, Nicolo Barella, Jorginho, Marco Verratti possibly coming in.
Netherlands – Frenkie de Jong, Georginio Wijnaldum.
If England are going to face any of these sides, the chances are they’re not going to be able to outplay them. They’ll get overrun in the middle of the park.
It’s the same problem they faced against Croatia in 2018 and Netherlands in the 2019 Nations League semi-final.
They’ll have to be pragmatic, setting up defensively and hoping to hit them on the counter or take a chance from a set piece.
This is, once again, an area where Sterling will be useful. His pace on the break will be difficult for any defender to cope with.
He may not be the most aesthetically pleasing winger. He may not be as ruthless in the final third as other forwards in the squad. But he’s a vital cog in the England side.