DOMINIC KING: Raheem Sterling never misses a beat for Gareth Southgate… it feels like he is the forgotten one at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola, but in 2021 he has been England’s top man
- England mauled Albania 5-0 at Wembley in World Cup qualifying on Friday
- Gareth Southgate’s side are unbeaten, outside of penalty shootouts, in 2021
- Raheem Sterling opened the scoring in England’s Euros 2-0 win over Germany
The calendar year is important for Gareth Southgate. It had been his ambition to go through 2021 unbeaten in games outside of penalty shootouts and that target will now be fulfilled.
After this skewering of Albania, we are not being overly presumptuous. England will beat San Marino in Serravale on Monday to confirm their place at the 2022 World Cup, so now is as good a point as any to reflect on the past 12 months and think who has been Southgate’s outstanding player.
Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice would have their supporters. Harry Kane would command a chunk of the vote after he burst into life during England’s run to the European Championship final and embarked on a crusade to break Wayne Rooney’s all-time scoring record in this fixture alone.
The winner, however, would have to be Raheem Sterling. Those long, hot days of the summer may have gone but the memory of his inspirational performances remain and the noise that greeted his hoodoo-busting goal against Germany in the last 16 will never be forgotten.
Raheem Sterling score a hoodoo-busting goal against Germany in the last 16 of Euro 2020
Nor, for that matter, will we fail to remember how he stood up to the bigots in Budapest, running into a hail of plastic cups after he scored in the 4-0 demolition of Hungary in September, paving the way for England’s best away performance since Seville in October 2018 (he helped himself to a goal in that 3-2 win against Spain, too).
Sterling, simply, is a fabulous performer. He never misses a beat for Southgate and it is remarkable to think that tomorrow it will be nine years to the day since he won first international cap, against Sweden, on the night his then Liverpool team-mate Steven Gerrard became an England Centurion.
Granted good fortune with fitness, there is no reason why Sterling will not gain entry to that exclusive club, which contains just nine members. He is on 72 England appearances now and he isn’t 27 until next month, so time is well on his side to reach the landmark.
The 26-year-old never misses a beat for Gareth Southgate and is on 72 England appearances
Southgate thinks the world of Sterling and with England’s head coach having agreed a deal in principle that will keep him in charge until the summer of 2024, it is inconceivable the man who wears number 10 will not be a massive figure in the next two tournaments.
It makes you wonder, then, what has happened to him at Manchester City. Pep Guardiola would argue vociferously that he has not lost faith in Sterling but the numbers and the opportunities do not add up for him at his club.
Since last month’s 1-1 draw with Hungary, Sterling has played 112 minutes in the Premier League and had no involvement in City’s humiliation of Manchester United; there have been 47 minutes in the Champions League over two substitute appearances, while the only time he has played from start to finish was in the EFL Cup defeat at West Ham.
It causes Southgate angst when his players are not being used from week-to-week and his brow noticeably furrowed on Thursday when it was put to him that Sterling’s lack of action in Manchester could prove detrimental for England.
The forward (above) used to be the man finishing the chances off for Manchester City
But Sterling has played just 112 minutes in the league under Pep Guardiola (left) this term
‘I know he enjoys his football with us,’ Southgate argued. ‘We have benefited massively from all of his attacking play, but of course his goals especially. I’ve not sensed a player that is low or lacking energy. I’ve seen absolutely the opposite.
‘He hadn’t played so much towards the end of the season, but did play the (Champions League) final; he was hungry and sharp and ready to go and that’s how I’ve seen him this week.’
And that is how we all saw him here. It took Sterling a little while to find his rhythm and you could see him grit his teeth in frustration when there were heavy touches or runs that went down dead-ends early on, crowded out by a posse of white shirts.
Quickly, though, the kinks were ironed out and off he went, a scurrying, scampering nuisance who had Albania’s defenders at their wit’s end. He would have loved a goal to mark his efforts but the assist he provided for Kane’s second in the 34th minute was an acceptable return.
Towards the end, he ran out of gas and it was sensible to replace him with Arsenal’s Emile Smith-Rowe. He left the field to a standing ovation, the crowd appreciative of all he has done in 2021. Sterling has been in England’s top man. In Manchester, it feels like he is the forgotten one.