International football in contemporary times is a different beast altogether, with two distinct schools of thought prevailing – while some nations choose to ride on individual brilliance, there are others who prefer to operate within a system. It mostly depends on the managers at the helm, but also on the kind of players at disposal. For a stage as grand as the FIFA World Cup, a combination of elite footballers within a dynamic tactical system is often the easiest route to strike gold, as Didier Deschamps has managed to do with France, leading Les Bleus to successive finals in 2016 Euro and 2018 World Cup.
Not many teams are, however, as gifted as the current French set-up, but there is no denying that all four teams which made it to the semi-finals in Russia displayed a certain level of tactical aptitude ingrained in their game. While Croatia and Belgium were driven by their golden generation of midfielders, England men’s team’s incursion into a semi-final for the first time since 1990 took many by surprise.
For decades, England managers have been plagued by the dilemma of fitting in the star English players into a single tactical system and still function at an optimal level. Gareth Southgate, with an unsuccessful stint at Middlesbrough and a three-year-long tenure in charge of the English U-21s, has circumvented that problem with ease by putting round pegs in round holes – choosing quality players who can bring his ideology into life. There is no doubt that Southgate has been blessed with a plethora of English blood coming through the ranks all across top flight – if Ruben Loftus-Cheek seized his World Cup spot with a wonderful loan spell, the national team captain Harry Kane has had the most profound education – written off by many in his early years, the Tottenham Hotspur forward has been consistently sensational. In John Stones and Harry Maguire, Southgate has two centre-backs with completely different career trajectories, but perhaps, the most fascinating to watch has been Southgate’s use of British football media’s cursed child, Raheem Sterling.
Goalless for England since October 2015, Raheem Sterling doesn’t fit anybody’s definition for a second striker, especially when England have the likes of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Jamie Vardy in their squad – all of whom have contributed more goals than the Manchester City forward. Yet, anybody who observed England’s quarter-final win over Sweden without any bias would tell you how influential Sterling was to England’s gameplay. And not just against Sweden, Sterling has produced the goods with immaculate consistency every time he has taken the pitch for the Three Lions.
Two moments from England’s first half against Sweden made the highlight reel for Raheem Sterling – first when he was deemed just offside after being one-on-one with the keeper, secondly when he failed to beat the Swedish custodian from a close range. Power, positioning and precision – three traits seem to define any striker of calibre according to European sports media, but Sterling is neither of those and still offers much more than just those three traits – probably why the Englishman is often on the receiving end of relentless, jarring criticism.
“Sometimes we judge him about ‘he missed that goal’, ‘he missed again that shot’, but the number of actions he creates, the assists today, he creates fouls, penalties, because he's so fast and quick, sometimes he is unstoppable in those situations,” Pep Guardiola said last season about Sterling’s dramatic transformation when he managed to net 23 Premier League goals.
“And the most magnificent thing is he is 23 years old, so he is still focused, keeping the desire to get better, as a player. His understanding of the game is global: he's a guy who can create inside, make a movement outside, dribbling, runs in behind. Still, he misses simple balls, and he has to be more aggressive in these kinds of things,” Guardiola had acknowledged that Sterling is still a work-in-progress but the Manchester City boss had also reflected upon the tenets of his game which Southgate has managed to harness successfully.
The 3-1-4-2 formation has been Southgate’s staple choice this summer – Jordan Henderson is rendered to do the dirty work at the base of the midfield while Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard provide two mobile passing outlets, intent on disrupting the opponent’s system, but it is the versatility offered by Raheem Sterling as a floating link between Harry Kane and the midfield which makes the system tick.
Forget the cutbacks across the goal amidst a crowded penalty area or the clever runs behind the defence to create goalscoring opportunities, Sterling’s tactical intelligence makes him the perfect candidate for the situations when England want to press high up the field – whether he puts the finishing touch himself or selflessly sets up a teammate, Sterling threatens to produce moments of magic every time he receives the ball and that is a quality to be heralded, not ridiculed.
A day does not go by when Sterling doesn’t find a mention among the British newspapers and tabloids – anything and everything from his choice of breakfast diner to his latest tattoo questioned and analysed, his brushes with controversies like the fashion in which he orchestrated his transfer from Liverpool to Manchester City and his delay in joining up with the World Cup squad highlighted at every juncture.
The flak Sterling receives doesn’t bother him as much anymore, in his own words, the youngster focussing on his duties instead.
“Every player wants to win the World Cup, every country wants to win the World Cup, so anything less than that is not really a bonus. Of course you can take positives out of everything, but you won’t be entirely happy if you don’t win it,” Sterling had opined – his style of dry martini may not suit the English media's tastebuds accustomed to gin, but Raheem Sterling’s virtuosity on the ball is necessary for England to pour a celebratory cocktail in the remaining games.
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Updated Date: Jul 11, 2018 12:30:39 IST