Raheem Sterling only scored twice in his first 45 England caps but he has hit seven in his last seven and the best is yet to come
Sunday 8 September 2019 15:15, UK
Raheem Sterling has long been prolific for Manchester City but now he's delivering for England, too. Nick Wright looks at how he put his international struggles behind him to become Gareth Southgate's most potent attacker following his latest goal in Saturday's win over Bulgaria.
In October of last year, after England had been held to a goalless draw by Croatia in the Nations League, Raheem Sterling's international barren run stood at 27 games. He had already become one of the Premier League's most lethal forwards at Manchester City, but with England it was a different story. It had been 1,810 minutes, across three years, since his last goal.
The pressure was mounting, especially with the emerging Jadon Sancho giving Gareth Southgate an exciting new option, but Sterling insisted the goals would come - "I'm sure of that," he said - and sure enough, 16 minutes into England's next game against Spain, he ended the sequence, crashing an emphatic finish past a helpless David de Gea.
Sterling has not looked back. He added what proved to be the winner that night in Seville, doubling his England tally for the previous six years in the space of 22 minutes, and his goal in Saturday's European Qualifier against Bulgaria made it seven from his last seven international appearances.
It comes down to a shift in focus. "When I was a bit younger, I wasn't too interested in scoring goals," Sterling said last year. "I was all about looking nice, or trying to look nice, and showing people I've got a lot of ability. Now I've started to realise no one remembers the nice stuff you do on the pitch, it's about your effectiveness and what you do for your team."
At Wembley on Saturday, he provided another perfect demonstration of how his priorities have changed. His England team-mates laboured at times, but Sterling served as a catalyst for almost every attack, beating Bulgaria players on both flanks and darting in behind at every opportunity.
It was his determination to make things happen that led to England's opener. As Bulgaria attempted to play their way out from the back, Sterling intercepted goalkeeper Plamen Iliev's pass, kept the ball in play and picked out the unmarked Harry Kane. Then, in the second half, he scored the kind of poacher's goal he scores on an almost weekly basis for his club.
Those two moments show how Sterling has narrowed his focus to the scoring and providing of goals, and so too does his touchmap. Not one of his 52 touches against Bulgaria came in his own half, while six came inside Bulgaria's penalty box - with two of them resulting in goals.
Sterling has learnt to maximise his strengths and Southgate could hardly be happier. The England manager lauded his "outstanding" performance in his press conference, saying his pressing in the lead-up to the opener set "absolutely the right tone" for the rest of the team and also touching on the change in mentality which has underpinned his transformation.
"He'll probably have the hump that he's only got one today because his mindset has shifted so much towards that desire to score, whereas two years ago when we were working with him, he was still a dangerous player, but he just didn't have that same desire to get into those areas and that ruthlessness in front of goal or that mindset of disappointment when he doesn't score.
"I'm delighted for him because he has for such a long time been an important part of our team and what we do. Now he's reaping the personal gain of the goals and the acknowledgement publicly that he should get."
Public opinion certainly seems to have shifted. During the World Cup, Southgate was forced to resist calls for Sterling to be dropped. His profligacy in front of goal was a major source of frustration to many fans and the criticism of his performances was fierce. On Saturday, however, he received a warm reception as he made way for Sancho in the second half.
Perhaps Sancho's emergence is another factor which has helped him. The teenager was excellent after replacing Sterling during that 0-0 draw with Croatia last October, but Sterling's response has been to become England's most consistent player. "It's great for him that he's taken his club form into international form," said Kane afterwards. "He's an amazing player."
Sterling's growing maturity is plain to see on the pitch and it is also apparent off it, where he has become a powerful voice in football's fight against racism. What's most encouraging for Southgate and England, though, is that, at 24, and with Pep Guardiola driving his improvement at Manchester City, there is still much more to come from him.
After three qualifying games, three wins and 14 goals scored - half of which Sterling has had a direct hand in - England already have one foot at Euro 2020 ahead of Tuesday's meeting with Kosovo. How far they go at next summer's tournament is likely to depend on a player whose 27-game scoreless streak is fast becoming a distant memory.