England: Raheem Sterling should not be dropped
After a disappointing performance against Tunisia, there have been calls to drop Raheem Sterling. Gareth Southgate should stick with him.
There was positivity and there was euphoria but, under the surface, there remained negatives.
For a moment, all of it was forgotten. When Harry Kane headed home in injury time to give England victory over Tunisia, the issues that had arisen during the course of the game were of little concern.
But reality soon made its unwelcome return. England were good, yes, but there are improvements to be made.
An energetic opening 30 minutes subsided as the game progressed and the second half was a more familiar story: a struggle to break down a stubborn defensive unit having dominated both on the ball and territorially.
There were concerns, too, with some individual performances. Kyle Walker was unconvincing at centre back and Dele Alli failed to have an impact in midfield. Most notable, though, was the criticism aimed at Raheem Sterling.
This is not new. By now, he is accustomed to vitriol and would have expected such a response following his performance against Tunisia.
Sterling, who played just off Harry Kane, missed an excellent chance in the first half, losing his balance and slicing his effort wide having been picked out in the box with time and space. And he was left frustrated throughout, unable to influence the game as he so often did for Manchester City last season.
When Sterling was withdrawn on 68 minutes Gareth Southgate put an arm around his shoulder: a familiar sight. England’s manager has been repeatedly forced to defend Sterling – most recently for matters off the pitch – and might find himself needing to do so again in the coming days.
His inclusion in the side is now in question. There are doubts as to whether Sterling fits into Southgate’s favoured system: the 3-1-4-2 deployed on Monday evening.
There are doubts, too, over Sterling’s ability to translate his club form onto the international stage: he has not scored a goal for England in 21 appearances and only has two international goals to his name.
No need for changes
But changing things now would be premature. Sterling has done more than enough over the last 12 months to warrant a place in this team and a below-par display in the opening game of the World Cup should not result in his immediate removal.
Southgate may, at some point, consider tweaking his system to better accommodate Sterling. He is more effective, as he has proven with Manchester City, playing in wide areas than through the middle.
For now, though, Southgate should persist with Sterling. In the Premier League last season, he scored 18 goals and provided 11 assists, albeit in a different role. The only English player who bettered that was Harry Kane and he is, rightly, considered indispensable.
Despite his significant contribution in a Manchester City side that broke numerous Premier League records on the way to the title, Sterling is yet to convince many. Perhaps it is his awkward running style. Perhaps it is his technical limitations.
Whatever the reason, Sterling is assessed with far more scrutiny than most of his international teammates. The things he brings to the team are often overlooked; instead, the focus is on what he does not offer. Hence the calls for Marcus Rashford to start against Panama.
The debate around Sterling, the constant need to single him out, is tiresome.
As the Daily Telegraph’s chief sports writer, Paul Hayward, said on Twitter Monday evening: “It would be nice if people could just say Raheem Sterling started the World Cup slowly, will have to do better, and probably will – without starting another bloody opera around him.”
This, of course, should have been expected. World Cups, by their very nature, prompt reactionary views. There is an urge to change things. If something has not worked perfectly the first time, then surely it won’t work throughout the tournament.
Those of an English persuasion must, if possible, be patient with Sterling. That is what Manchester City and Pep Guardiola did. They have reaped the rewards and England might too.
But, if Sterling is cast aside after one game and left on the periphery for the remainder of the World Cup, England could be left to rue what might have been.
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