The narrative surrounding Raheem Sterling’s career is rapidly shifting away from one dominated by slanderous criticism to one of gushing admiration.
It’s a change which Gareth Southgate is perhaps due some credit for. The cornerstone of his success as England manager has been his ability to help players reconnect with the public, and it’s no coincidence that change has arrived simultaneously with a shift in attitude towards Man City’s wing-wizard.
Sterling’s future in Manchester has been called into question in recent months, with Real Madrid touted as a potential destination, but speculation was laid to rest on Thursday.
Various reports confirmed that Sterling has verbally agreed to sign a new deal with the club after excelling under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage.
The timid, sometimes ineffective and frustratingly wasteful player who struggled to justify his £49 million price-tag with the Citizens on his debut season has blossomed into a deadly, dazzling and indispensable member of one of the most star-studded squads in world football.
But his form at international level remains a troubling problem for Southgate to resolve and his failure to emulate his club form with the national side has evoked scathing criticism across the nation – particularly with regard to his record in front of goal.
That Sterling is considered ineffective if he fails to find the back of the net is a fallacy which needs addressing, and Sky Sports pundit Danny Higginbotham tackled the issue head on in light of his decision to sign a new contract.
“He gets unnecessary and unwarranted criticism, especially when he goes away with England, but Manchester City are better than England.
“When all of a sudden, you go away with England, it will obviously be a little bit more difficult because you haven’t got a Sergio Aguero or David Silva next to you or a Kevin De Bruyne who is going to be playing those passes through.
“Even at times at the World Cup, people were questioning what he was doing. If he’s not scoring, then he’s not doing anything – well I disagree with that completely. It’s unbelievable.”
Higginbotham’s verdict is a breath of fresh air in a media space which consistently chooses to ignore his overall contribution, bravery in possession and tremendous work-rate.
After all, the vast majority of Sterling’s critics during the World Cup failed to acknowledge that Southgate was playing him in a totally different position to the one which he thrives in for Man City; when the 23-year-old returned to a more natural right-wing role, he scored a brace in the Three Lions’ compelling 3-2 victory over Spain.
Coincidence? Of course not. Sterling is more comfortable drifting inside from wide positions, but starting him in a number ten role deprives him of the opportunity to maintain an enigmatic presence in the final-third.
Common perceptions about Sterling’s calibre are rapidly changing and more and more people are warming to the idea that he is, in fact, verging on world class.
Higginbotham’s admission that he does not have to be scoring to provide England with a valuable asset in attack is absolutely spot on, and it’s about time people accept the enormity of his importance to the national side.
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