Admired by pundits, feared by opposing coaches and hugely popular with his team-mates, Raheem Sterling remains the most questioned member of England’s starting line-up in Russia 2018.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at the Manchester City star’s performance in England’s semi-final against Croatia.
In a word, phenomenal. It actually took him nearly 15 minutes to get a proper touch but he had already played a major role in England’s early success. Three times England’s midfield looked to find him early from deep – not hopeless lumps forward, mind, but well-directed passes into the channels – and three times a Croatian defender just got a toe to it. But from high up in the stands you could see the effect this was having. Croatia’s centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida were retreating to give themselves a head start, creating space for Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard. Sterling had Lovren, in particular, on toast, and as the first half progressed he saw more of the ball. One nice pass found Kane just offside and he then skinned Lovren in a foot race only for the Liverpool stopper to hack him down. It looked like Lovren’s only answer and he was fortunate to avoid a card.
This, and his finishing, of course, which we will get to, is where he needs to improve. As England’s most advanced player for large chunks of the game, he did not make any long passes. And as Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young supply the width, he was also not asked to make many crosses. So most of his passing was of the knitting-play-together variety, which he did well, and quick interchanges around the box. Clearly, these passes have a higher risk-reward tariff, and not even Lionel Messi pulls them off all the time. But Sterling could be more precise and spot openings a fraction of a second earlier. That is all it would take to bring the maximum benefit for his clever and willing running.
Another huge positive in Sterling’s game. He’s not a perpetual motion machine but neither should he be. His kilometres are clocked up in coruscating bursts of pace. Over 20 to 30 metres there was not a player on the park, apart from Kyle Walker perhaps, who could live with him. And what worried Croatia was his ability and desire to do it again and again. Another underrated part of his game is his hold-up play. He frequently beats defenders to loose balls and then just backs into his man, one foot on the ball, the other bearing the weight of whoever is behind him. It is the type of work team-mates love.
Sterling’s goal drought for England – nearly three years – has been well documented and endlessly debated, and he has missed chances during this tournament. But he did not get a clear sight of goal here, so it is hardly fair to critique his work in front of goal at the Luzhniki Stadium. What is perhaps fair to point out, though, is a player of his speed, talent and work-rate is overdue a tap-in. He needs to keep putting himself in the right spots. He did it for Manchester City last season but, for whatever reason, it is not happening for him in an England shirt. Having put in a big shift for this team, he was substituted for Marcus Rashford with just over 15 minutes to play. So another game ticks by without a goal but he certainly made a contribution.