The reluctance in certain quarters to admit that Raheem Sterling is one of England’s most important players is a strange phenomenon. An odd idea has taken hold, centred around Sterling owing his place to unjustifiable favouritism, providing further evidence of Gareth Southgate’s unimaginative streak, and there are times when it feels as though it will not take much for supporters to turn on the winger.
The anti-Sterling vibes are never far from growing in intensity. His disappointing form for Manchester City last season ensured there were plenty of calls for Southgate to drop him before Euro 2020 and there was a telling reaction from a section of the crowd when Sterling let a simple pass run out for a throw-in when England were level with Croatia during their opening game. The error drew an audible sigh of impatience, the kind that eventually spills over into open dissent, and it was exacerbated by the cheers that soon followed when Jack Grealish started warming up.
For many people there is no doubt that Grealish has to play. He is the maverick, the game-changer, the unconventional rebel with the potential to alter the rhythm and mood of England’s staid attack, if only Southgate would let him off the leash. Holding back Grealish makes no sense to those who see an opportunity for England to make a creative No 10 the fulcrum of the side at last, almost as a form of penance after the sidelining of Alan Hudson and Tony Currie in the 70s, Glenn Hoddle in the 80s, Matt Le Tissier in the 90s.
Into this debate comes Sterling, who was not a wildly popular pick to start instead on the left instead of Grealish against Croatia. The 26-year-old was under scrutiny after losing his duel with Reece James when City were beaten by Chelsea in the Champions League final last month and plenty of people wanted to see Grealish helping Mason Mount and Phil Foden feed Harry Kane.
Yet this was a misreading of how Southgate wants his team to function. The successful international sides tend to be pragmatic, capable of picking their moments and squeezing the life out of opponents, and if Southgate counts Sterling as one of his favourites perhaps it is because he prioritises efficiency over flamboyance.
It is about substance over style. England, who scored twice in three games, did not focus on entertainment on their way to winning Group D. They were controlled rather than chaotic, moving the ball up the pitch slowly, often keeping the full-backs back, and they have backed themselves to defend a lead if they score first, creating a need for the forwards to be decisive in key moments.
Enter Sterling, who scored a cool winner against Croatia just as the clamour for Grealish to come on was rising. He looked free of doubt when he went through on goal and could not understand why there was any debate over his place in the side after the game, rolling his eyes when he was asked whether his goal had silenced the critics.
Sterling is certainly entitled to wonder why he is not appreciated more, even though his goal against Croatia was his first in a tournament. He can be erratic at times, dithering occasionally, and there is talk of City trying to sell him this summer. Yet he still produced for City last season, scoring 14 goals, and his value to England is obvious. England need Sterling’s speed and movement, his ability to make space for others by pulling defences out of shape with clever runs off the ball, and it is obvious why Southgate continues to pick a player who keeps putting himself into goalscoring positions.
Yet the disconnect was present again when England beat the Czech Republic at Wembley on Tuesday. Whereas there was only applause for Sterling when he was replaced by Marcus Rashford in the second half, there were boos when Southgate removed Grealish a few minutes later.
The difference in the reaction made little sense. Sterling and Grealish had played well after starting in the same team, dovetailing impressively on the left, and they combined for England’s early winner. Grealish, looking good on his first start of the tournament, provided an inviting cross and Sterling rose at the back post, heading his 14th England goal in his past 19 appearances.
“Over the last couple of years Raheem has transferred his club goalscoring form into the matches with us,” Southgate said. “When you can get wide players scoring in that way then that’s a huge lift.”
It provides an even bigger lift when Kane has been so out of sorts. Even now, though, there is a resistance to Sterling, an insistence on finding flaws and handing out grudging praise instead of acknowledging his worth to the team. By contrast Grealish, who has a long way to go before matching Sterling’s achievements, can do no wrong.
Sterling, a multiple Premier League champion, has consistently shown that he belongs at the highest level. There is a hierarchy in England’s attack for a good reason and Germany’s shaky defence will not relish marking Sterling in the last 16 on Tuesday. Joachim Löw’s side would be foolish to leave space for the forward to run in behind and it is time for his detractors to show him similar respect.