It seems every international tournament is filled with debate about Raheem Sterling. This will now be his fourth as part of the England squad and his experience will be considered vital by Gareth Southgate. In hindsight, it seems obvious that he would be starting against Croatia, despite his questionable club form. He is trusted by the manager and he adds much needed tournament experience to a youthful squad.
There is rightly excitement about the generation coming through now. Marcus Rashford, Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish and Bakayo Saka are all excellent players with something to offer to the Three Lions, but Sterling isn’t a hardened veteran in the way some are talking about him. He is still only 26 years old and should be entering the prime years of his career. This could be the tournament that he leaves a legacy at international level.
Based on the way he spoke about his match-winning performance against Croatia, Sterling is confident that he can have a good tournament. It was important that he came out of the blocks quickly, due to the criticism at his inclusion at Wembley in the opening game. He certainly did that, as it was his movement that caused the most issues.
International football is increasingly a game of fine margins and Sterling can create openings with his pace and movement. That was evident early in the first half, as his smart movement created a clear-cut opening from a throw-in. Kieran Trippier released him through the centre of the pitch and the Manchester City attacker then found his club team-mate Phil Foden. It was nearly the perfect start, as Foden cut inside and hit the post. The intelligence and directness of Sterling directly created this chance.
There were countless other examples of Sterling trying to run in behind the Croatia defence and it was clear that they were scared of the damage he could do. His decision making was slightly off at times, but his ability to get into dangerous positions vindicated the decision to start with him. For all of his quality on the ball, Jack Grealish wouldn’t have made the same runs and these were vital to England’s game plan.
The match-winning moment came in the second half. It was primarily down to the brilliance of Kalvin Phillips in the middle third, but Sterling once again showed his intelligent movement and reading of the game by exploding into the space in the heart of the Croatian back defence. He didn’t make any mistake with his finish and he finally got his tournament moment.
Southgate’s selection was criticised before kick-off and Sterling was arguably his most questionable decision, due to the clamour for Grealish to play. The template now looks to be one of Foden or Grealish to play alongside one of Sterling, Rashford or Sancho. That provides a better balance to the front-line.
Sterling is the undoubted first choice for the role, due to his experience and consistency for England for several years now. He is one of Southgate’s most trusted lieutenants and he looks hungry to have his best tournament to date.