Raheem Sterling ready to get back to basics after stalling at Chelsea | Raheem Sterling
When Raheem Sterling returns to Manchester City on Sunday afternoon and sees John Stones floating into midfield, their creative players servicing Erling Haaland and everyone in light blue going into overdrive when possession is lost, it will bring home the difference between a team that obey their manager’s every command and one who have spent an entire season in a state of self-imposed flux.
Sterling is all too aware of the standards required to reach and stay at the top. Everybody in the City dressing room had to understand that Pep Guardiola’s vision was sacrosanct. Doing so allowed City to flourish and individuals to take their game to new heights. By the time Sterling left last summer, he had 131 goals and 74 assists in all competitions and won four league titles at the club.
Those numbers underlined Sterling’s efficiency. He is not a flashy player but he has a way of getting the job done. He is, as Frank Lampard said after seeing Sterling score twice in Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Nottingham Forest last weekend, a killer in the final third.
Yet that ruthlessness has been lacking this season. It has been the toughest year of Sterling’s career and he is hurting. The thought of not playing in Europe next season is gnawing at him. He never imagined it would be this hard when Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital made him their first signing after their takeover of Chelsea. The deal seemed to suit everyone: Sterling had drifted to the margins at City, while Chelsea were looking to revamp their malfunctioning attack and hailed the England winger as a “marquee” buy after he joined for £47.5m.
Spool forward to the present day, though, and Chelsea’s attack remains uninspired. They are in the bottom half of the Premier League before facing City and have had four managers this season. Sterling, having mostly known continuity at City, has encountered too much change at Chelsea. He knows the only way forward is for everyone at the club to fall in behind Mauricio Pochettino when the Argentinian takes over as head coach.
Sterling has heard from his England teammate Harry Kane about Pochettino’s man-management skills. He hopes the former Tottenham manager will be a long-term appointment. Sterling played under Guardiola for six seasons but he barely got to know Thomas Tuchel. It was hardly ideal that he had to build a relationship with a new manager so soon into his time at Stamford Bridge.
Ultimately it never quite clicked with Graham Potter. The drop-off was startling. When Tuchel left, Sterling had scored three goals in seven games. Yet Potter never knew his best team and Sterling dipped, his only goal in the league under the former Brighton manager coming during the 1-1 draw at Forest on New Year’s Day.
It was not a happy time for Sterling. Potter moved him around too much, even trying him out as an auxiliary wing-back before the World Cup. The results were disastrous. There was one traumatic afternoon at Aston Villa in October, with Sterling’s lack of defensive nous repeatedly exposed, and the experiment was shelved when Brighton thrashed Chelsea 4-1.
Sterling’s rhythm disappeared. He scored in England’s opening game at the World Cup but lost his starting place during the group stage. Then he had to deal with the strain of flying home during the tournament after a burglary at his Surrey home. The incident shook him and took a physical and emotional toll. Sterling flew back to Qatar for England’s quarter-final defeat by France, but at what cost? The travel was tough. Perhaps it was not a surprise when he went down with a muscle injury in the fifth minute of Chelsea’s defeat by City in January.
It was all too stop-start, forcing Sterling to miss England’s Euro 2024 qualifiers in March, and there was more upheaval when Potter was sacked. Suddenly the focus shifted on to Chelsea’s various expensive disappointments. What had happened to Sterling? Did he care? Why wasn’t the marquee signing scoring? Had his pace gone? Would he still be at Chelsea next season?
Sterling, who earns more than £300,000 a week, was a shadow of himself when Chelsea lost to Arsenal last month. He was a substitute when Real Madrid knocked them out of Europe. Close your eyes, imagine him at his best for City and you will see him arriving in the six-yard box to finish off a flowing move. But there was none of that synchronicity at Chelsea. Too many players arrived and it has been impossible to build on-pitch relationships.
Equally, Sterling is his own biggest critic. He knows he has not been good enough. This is a player who can score a hat-trick but spend days dwelling on one missed chance. It is why Sterling has been saying the time for excuses is over. He has stayed rational. In private Sterling has commented that the more they try to fix it, the worse it gets. Time, he thinks, to get back to basics.
It is about pulling in the same direction. Sterling trusts in his ability and sees talent in the squad. Nothing about his career suggests he will give up. There was pure release when he scored against Forest last week. The frustration came pouring out when he scored Chelsea’s equaliser and it is worth pointing out that his second goal, a lovely curling effort, was his 115th in the Premier League, lifting him above Ian Wright and into 22nd place in the competition’s all-time standings.
The consistency is remarkable and the funny thing is that Sterling – nine goals and four assists in all competitions – has the most goal contributions of any Chelsea player this season. There is still cause for optimism. Sterling was outstanding in Chelsea’s best display of the campaign, their victory over Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, and he is very much part of Pochettino’s plans. It is up to Chelsea to let the project breathe.