What do statistics tell us? Sometimes quite a lot – especially when it comes to Raheem Sterling.
For example, Sterling has been fit and available for 25 meaningful England internationals, excluding friendlies and the occasional dead rubber, since being dropped from the team in September 2017 to play against Slovakia in a World Cup qualifier.
The Manchester City forward has been selected to start all of these matches, a match against Montenegro at Wembley in November 2019, from which he was resigned after an altercation with Joe Gomez at St George’s Park.
Saturday June 12
Sunday 13 June
Raheem Sterling has become one of England’s most important men, but he’s had a worrying dip
Manchester City winger, who poses for his Euro 2020 portrait, could be stopped against Croatia against
So this tells us something about Gareth Southgate’s admiration for the 26-year-old. For virtually the entire time Southgate was in charge of England, Sterling was a sure choice, which in turn makes the decision about his selection or otherwise for the opening match of Euro 2020 against Croatia all the more fundamental.
Southgate’s instincts tell him not to pick players who don’t play for their clubs and Sterling has not played regularly for City since he was dropped after the Manchester derby defeat in early March.
Similarly, Southgate’s alternatives, players like Jack Grealish and Sterling’s City team-mate Phil Foden, have spent some of that time presenting compelling arguments for him to be included.
Grealish – so impressive when donning an England shirt – seems to have the weight of public opinion behind him. Foden, meanwhile, has appeared in camp looking like Paul Gascoigne and no one shy away from wider comparisons. That’s saying something.
But Southgate always picks Sterling. He just does it.
Along with Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire, Sterling has long been one of the players the manager has built his team around.
Sterling has been a key player for England since Gareth Southgate took over
To swim upstream from that now would be a daunting task, especially given the injury absence of Henderson and Maguire has left Sunday’s future starting XI with such a green tint. The problem, and it is a major one, is Sterling’s sincere and obvious lack of form.
To fully contribute to England’s cause for the former Liverpool player would require a massive and immediate improvement on everything he has produced in the Premier League since the late winter.
After being dropped after United’s defeat on March 7, he was selected by Pep Guardiola for just one league game in two months. That was a home defeat to Leeds, notable for an underpowered side that Guardiola fielded for a game that was between two Champions League games against Borussia Dortmund.
Sterling played 90 minutes against Leeds and a total of two minutes as a substitute in the two Dortmund games.
He played a little more – eight minutes – as City beat Paris Saint-Germain in the semi-finals and then were selected out of the blue for his club’s defeat to Chelsea in the final 11 days ago.
Sterling has competition from Phil Foden and Jack Grealish in the service of England
Sterling’s relationship with Guardiola has never been exceptionally close. ‘Functional’ is how it is described by those in the know.
But he is not alone there. What is more telling is that the City manager has simply misplaced a little faith in the attacker as a footballer.
Guardiola described Sterling as “brilliant” and “amazing” after winning City’s Carabao Cup final against Tottenham in April. “In recent weeks he has trained well in every session,” added Guardiola, who seemed to suggest intentionally or accidentally that this may not always have been the case this season.
At City there has been no active push to sell a player who has been so crucial to what they have achieved under Guardiola. They are thought to be listening to offers, although Sterling has made it clear he does not want to be the spotlight on a major incoming transfer.
Sterling has already tasted glory at Wembley this year in the Carabao Cup final with Man City
If he goes it would be because someone wants him and it would be on his terms. It should be a ‘headline’ transfer.
At his best, Sterling is an almost unplayable, instinctive and free-running footballer and the more palatable and perhaps more likely solution to all this in the long run is simply for him to get his form back. There isn’t a player in Southgate’s squad who hasn’t experienced similar perils.
Should Sterling need a reminder of what could happen, all he has to do is look across the dining table at his club mate John Stones. Who would have had the 27-year-old defender in Southgate’s squad for the European Championship if he had been selected a year ago?
The problem for Sterling is that his fallow period has come at exactly the wrong time.
When he played a freestyle against San Marino in March, Sterling captained Southgate. He was guilty of trying way too hard that night. Sometimes he just looked confused.
But Sterling’s dip in form came just at the wrong time for his England starting chances
Speaking this week about Sterling’s enduring gifts, Foden said: “His goals speak for themselves. Raheem could be a very important player for us.”
Nevertheless, this is an English team in which it has gone terribly fast since the last World Cup. The last time Sterling was not selected on merit – in that match in September 2017 – Joe Hart, Ryan Bertrand and Phil Jones were on the team. Jake Livermore came off the couch.
Southgate has since turned to Sterling, just about every time it really mattered.
Ahead of a game England simply cannot afford to lose on Sunday, it would still come as a shock if one of England’s most gifted attacking players showed up at Wembley and found someone else’s shirt hanging from his hook.