We’ve been here before: on the eve of a major tournament, with debate raging over whether Raheem Sterling deserves his place in the England team.
While his record at international level and at major finals remains impressive, his club form for Chelsea is not making much of a case for his inclusion with the World Cup only two weeks away.
Sterling has scored twice in the Champions League since the start of September but, after failing to have a shot during Sunday’s defeat by 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 has not had a settled role, either. Whether it is wing-back, 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 little lost,” said former England defender Micah Richards, who watched Sterling against the Gunners for MOTD2.
“It’s like he is a bit frustrated in terms of Chelsea’s set-up and, tactically, does not know what they want him to do.”
A big move – then a new manager
Losing his way was not the scenario Sterling envisaged when he mapped out his £50m switch from Manchester City to Stamford Bridge in July.
Sterling had been tracked by Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich but was apparently impressed by the vision of then-manager Thomas Tuchel, and also the role he outlined for him in his team.
Less than two months later, though, Tuchel was history. Potter is now plotting Chelsea’s future, but his frequent tweaks 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 looked like the perfect move for him,” Richards added. “But then they changed their manager and we have all seen the upheaval that has followed.
“After a manager signs you and says you are their top guy, 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 to have some stability. I think he is in good hands with Potter – let’s make that clear – but it is down to him to get the best out of Sterling now.”
‘Get Sterling on the ball near the goal’
Sterling scored 131 goals in 339 games for City, with his trademark finish seeing him arrive to finish a sweeping passing move at the back post.
He has been far less prolific since joining Chelsea – probably because he is getting far fewer chances in front of goal.
|Man City 2021-22||Chelsea 2022-23|
|40.1||Mins per shot||56.5|
|49%||On target %||39%|
|175.9||Mins 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, dominating the ball with 70-80% possession, every week, but now he is in a team who are in transition after changing managers, and seems to change formation all the time.
“The whole team are still figuring out how they play under Potter, so Sterling is not the only one who has to work that out.
“Using him in different positions hasn’t helped. Ideally I want to see him high and wide up the pitch, preferably on the left so he can go either way – inside or out – when he runs into the box.
“But whatever you call his role, you want him on the ball near goal, not in his own half having to run 60 or 70 yards to get a shooting opportunity.
“For City, he would always pick up the ball up 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 team to provide for him.
“That’s not the case playing for Chelsea – he has to create things himself.”
Should he start against Iran?
Sterling also had a difficult time before last year’s European Championship, when his goals dried up for City and he found himself benched for their biggest games.
Southgate stayed loyal, however, and Sterling repaid him by scoring three goals to help England reach the final, and earn himself a place in the team of the tournament too.
Will the Three Lions boss do the same this time, when he picks his side to face Iran in their opening game in Qatar on 21 November?
“You want your players to be in form, of course, but I think Gareth will stick with him this time too, and I can understand why after what he has done for him in the past,” Richards said.
“All season he has not been playing great but at least he is playing a lot, which is what he wanted when he left City.
“I would start him against Iran too, as part of a front three with Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane. He deserves that faith, after what he has done for England in the past.
“Let’s see how he does in the first game, and assess it after that. If he does nothing, then it might be time to rotate.
“But we have seen before how Raheem has responded after basically being written off for England, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him remind everyone just how good he is.”