It was a familiar setting for England at a major tournament. One game into Euro 2016 and the knives were out, most of them pointing menacingly at the self-proclaimed ‘Hated One’.
A poor performance in a 1-1 draw with Russia during the Group B opener in France saw Raheem Sterling endure the brunt of the criticism.
The consistently polarising figure took to Instagram in the aftermath: “Really unlucky today, on a good team performance really deserved the win, but we go again. Proud of all the boys #England #raheemsterling #TheHatedOne.”
It only served to antagonise the angry mob and the Three Lions would unconvincingly sneak through a relatively comfortable group before being sent home with their tails between their legs by minnows Iceland in the round of 16.
Two years on, and the mood around the England camp couldn’t be more different at the World Cup. Yet, Sterling – tipped to be a key player ahead of the tournament – is still the most castigated individual.
The fact he divides opinion like no other player in the current England set-up is especially intriguing because the reasoning behind it is flimsy at best. Forcing his way out of Liverpool in 2015 could be identified as a turning point for Sterling.
A disappointing debut campaign with Manchester City followed, one which saw his £50 million purchase regularly alluded to and subsequent performances with England ensured even a casual breakfast run would provoke admonishment, never mind a striking tattoo.
After 23 goals and 12 assists across all competitions with City in the past season though, Sterling seems to have turned over a new leaf under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola. Naturally, expectations of him were high going into the World Cup but he’s yet to live up to them.
Calls for Gareth Southgate to drop the 23-year-old in favour of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford have grown in decibel level but are largely misguided.
Those expecting Sterling to replicate his displays with City were always going to be kept waiting. The Citizens operate in a vastly different system and the Englishman’s role in it is hardly similar to what’s asked of him with the national team.
At City, the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva have the guile and ingenuity in midfield to pull the strings and find Sterling’s darting runs in behind the defence with surgical precision. Such midfield maestros don’t exist in the England set-up and the onus is instead on Sterling to make inroads or create space, on and off the ball.
While it may look as if he often zips around without purpose, he is executing a key role for his team-mates – particularly Harry Kane. Given the lack of creativity through the middle, Sterling is tasked with pulling defenders out of position and that involves a lot of dummy runs as much as it does carrying the ball himself and attracting players towards him.
Jesse Lingard deservedly took the plaudits for his superb strike against Panama during a 6-1 win but few noticed the give and go with Sterling which set it up as the City star drew in three defenders in the process. His ability to disorientate defences will be absolutely key against a stubborn Sweden back-line.
This is not to say that he’s had a sensational tournament. There’s definitely plenty of scope for improvement and he’ll want to make more of an impact than his subtle contributions to the system, as crucial as they are.
Firing his country into the semi-finals would be a great start.
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