In the last six matches of the Premier League season, Raheem Sterling was Manchester City’s best attacking player. He made five dribbles and eight passes in the box, was fouled for a penalty, scored twice and was very near to scoring on at least two more occasions.
Twelve ranked him better than his club teammates Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane and David Silva. Under Pep Guardiola, he is one of the best attacking players in the world.
On International duty things are, unfortunately, very different. Sterling just doesn’t seem to get going. He is stuck in the area on the left in front of the penalty area, making failed dribbles, committing fouls and not making high-quality dribbles or passes.
These errors aren’t problematically defesively (toggle the ‘important actions’ to see them all) but they do mean that Sterling isn’t moving the ball forward.
Twelve has Sterling on half as many points as De Bruyne, and he even trails a long way behind David Silva, playing for an eliminated Spain.
So what is the problem?
It is simple really. At Manchester City, Sterling is provided the opportunity to shine by his teammates. He gets further forward and can make runs in behind the defence. This is what he, and Leroy Sane, do best and why City did so well last season.
For England, it appears that Sterling is often trying to play the role that De Bruyne fills so well at City: the role of changing the direction of attacking play. But at the same time, Sterling seems to have been instructed to attack as a second striker. It is impossible for him to be in two places at the same time. He can’t find the space in midfield and then be there to dribble round behind the opposition.
Instead, the most effective focus of England’s attack has been Kevin Trippier. Against Columbia he created four chances.
The success of Trippier of getting the ball in to the box renders Sterling’s potential ‘get round the back’ contribution redundant, and hence the more central role to which the City player has been assigned by Gareth Southgate.
England don’t have a Kevin De Bruyne, a David Silva or a Paul Pogba. It is thus wise of Southgate to build the team around defensive security and attack from the wings. Sterling doesn’t quite fit in to this system, he is neither an attacking midfielder of the De Bruyne mould nor is he a proper second striker.
I would like to see Jamie Vardy start against Sweden. He suits the style of play required for a 5-3-2 formation and can get on the end the balls provided by Trippier, Ashley Young and, in the group-stage matches, his Leicester City teammate Harry Maguire.
It might not be as elegant football as that played by Manchester City, but it can be highly effective against Sweden’s 4-4-2.