The long wait for Raheem Sterling‘s career to take off could finally be over — good news for Pep Guardiola and outstanding news for Gareth Southgate as the countdown to the World Cup starts in earnest.
Just two days before the draw for next summer’s finals, Sterling scored a wonder goal for Manchester City against Southampton, the latest gem from a player enjoying a stellar season for the Premier League leaders.
Seven goals in 10 games, many of them crucial, have brought the smile back to the face of Sterling, just three months after this nearly man of top-flight football was being hauled off after an eminently forgettable 45 minutes for England in Malta.
Raheem Sterling’s career finally looks to be taking off, just at the perfect time for England
And a happy Sterling equals a happy Southgate. ‘It’s an incredible run of not only scoring but scoring such important goals for his club, I would imagine he’s really enjoying playing in a team full of confidence,’ said the England boss.
There comes a point when the share price of an ailing company bottoms out. Even a damaged stock eventually becomes relatively undervalued. That is where Sterling’s career and Southgate’s England sit now.
Of course, it could still get worse for Southgate. England are quite capable of drawing their group games with Tunisia and Panama, losing against Belgium and being ejected from the World Cup in the same ignominious fashion as Roy Hodgson’s team, who lasted six days at Brazil 2014.
Yet, although England have done nothing to inspire since then and managed to add an even bigger humiliation to their CV in losing to Iceland at Euro 2016, this side do stand up to more scrutiny than their recent predecessors. There is something stirring at the seemingly perennially dormant FA, evident in the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cup wins.
After lighting up the Premier League as a youngster with Liverpool, Sterling went quiet
Now the winger has improved all dimensions of his game and is a world class talent
The much-maligned club academies, which came online five years ago but which were conceived by the oft-demonised Premier League after the debacle of failing to qualify for Euro 2008, are now producing players admired throughout the world. Perhaps just as significantly, young English players who have already graduated to senior ranks have the benefit of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino coaching them.
In fact, if England ever do anything again at international level, the knighthood ought to go to Pochettino. Without him it seems unlikely that Harry Kane and Eric Dier would be anything like the players they are now, ready to lead England and take on the world. Dele Alli, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Adam Lallana, Kieran Trippier and Harry Winks have also been improved and influenced by him.
As such, Southgate can afford to be cautiously optimistic as England prepare for what are likely to be two tense, defensive encounters against Tunisia and Panama and a group showdown against one of the tournament favourites in Belgium.
If his friend Roberto Martinez, the Belgium manager, has Romelu Lukaku, then he has Kane; if the Belgians have Jan Vertonghen, he can point to John Stones. As yet he has no one like Thibaut Courtois, and the error-prone Joe Hart will probably have run his course before the summer.
Nor do England quite have a Kevin De Bruyne, nor an Eden Hazard. But they do have Sterling. There is not a player in better current form in the Premier League.
City might go down as one of the all-time great club teams and Sterling is more than holding his own alongside De Bruyne, himself the best player so far this season in the Premier League.
Sterling’s renaissance is notable. He was unfairly blamed for Euro 2016 when he was by no means the worst offender: Hart and Wayne Rooney were the real failures.
But as recently as September, when Southgate had to take him off at half-time against Malta, you feared that at the age of 22 he might be transitioning from bright, young thing to that player categorised under ‘potential unfulfilled’.
The challenge of the fresh intake of players at City and another year under Guardiola are now bringing the best out of Sterling since that breakthrough season of 2013-14.
‘Raheem has real resilience,’ said Southgate. ‘He’s got a real focus and knows competition for places is high and you’ve got to be playing well to stay in the team. That is what we need in our squad and what we’ve got. It’s an incredible run of not only scoring but scoring such important goals for his club.’
Sterling has really progressed under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage, and England could benefit
Recalling the decision to sub him in Malta, Southgate said: ‘There are days when you take people on and don’t have success. There will be days it is just not happening for attacking players. But it’s then being brave enough to go again and get on the ball again.’
So while Belgium have extraordinary options going forward and are genuine World Cup contenders, which England aren’t, Southgate does have really good players in forward positions and some reasonable defensive ones.
‘We have got some very exciting attacking players,’ said Southgate. ‘Raheem is in form and we know Harry’s goalscoring record. There is the likes of Adam [Lallana] and we know what Dele is capable of. There’s Marcus [Rashford] and [Jamie] Vardy is in really good form so we have good options.’
One injury cannot now jeopardise four years of preparation, which is how it often felt in the years when Rooney carried the team.
‘I’m sure we will lose someone before the tournament but I feel we have good cover,’ said Southgate.
‘I don’t feel we are too reliant on one player in one position. And that will be important as you’ve got to ride some of those things leading into the tournament which maybe at times have been major derailers.’
England now have players, such as Dele Alli, making huge impact at club level on the big stage
Marcus Rashford likewise has made a name for himself across Europe with Manchester United
That said, these are the kind of positives England managers always talk up pre-tournament. England had good attacking options in 2014 in a young Sterling, a fit Daniel Sturridge and Rooney. But behind them were a mediocre back four and a run-down version of Steven Gerrard rather than the vintage model next to Jordan Henderson.
Midfield and central defence should worry England. Henderson may start again. They need Dier to continue his rise and for Winks to be the player we hope he is. But in Stones, another beneficiary of Guardiola’s finishing school, there seems real defensive leadership.
With Harry Maguire and Phil Jones alongside him, no team will be able to assume that England won’t be able to play their way out of trouble. They will get caught out at times. And should they make a quarter-final against Brazil or Germany, it is likely they will be stretched beyond their capabilities. But they are better than their predecessors in 2014.
If there is a fear for England, it is that at Euro 2016 and in qualifying under Southgate the problem has been in unpicking teams who sit deep. Tunisia and Panama, with just nine goals in 10 games in the final round of qualifying, are likely to do so. However, the return of Lallana to the Liverpool team means Southgate has his best player in unlocking that kind of defence back.
‘He’s consistently been an exciting player for England,’ Southgate said. ‘He is an intelligent player but an instinctive player in a creative way.’
England will be hoping their youthful yet talent-laden side can cause teams issues in Russia
He will be key, as will Sterling. Kane, Dier and Stones will also be marked down as certain starters and leaders.
England still have it within them to fail miserably at the group stage. And even having navigated that, to assume the path to the last eight will be smooth is to underestimate the strengths of Senegal and Colombia, lurking in the last 16.
But there is also an opportunity next summer to succeed. This team are good enough to progress to the last eight. No further than that, once they run into a likely clash against Brazil or Germany. It is hardly 1966 and all that. But it would at least be the start of the recovery.
Author: Nancy Parker
Nancy Parker is a five time Emmy Award winning journalist and seven time Emmy nominee who has spent almost twenty five years covering news in South Louisiana. She has anchored every prime time newscast at WVUE FOX8 during her twenty year tenure in New Orleans.