It is not easy to understand how a forward with Raheem Sterling’s penetrative qualities has found it so difficult to replicate his scoring form with England and when the question is put to both the player and his manager, Gareth Southgate, it is clear they find it equally perplexing.
How, after all, can anybody make sense of the fact there have been only two occasions in a 45-cap international career, covering nearly six years, when one of the Premier League’s more reliable scorers has been on target for his country? Or that, going into the game against Spain on Monday, a player who is so prolific for Manchester City, with 23 goals last season, has gone 27 appearances since managing one for the national team?
The last occasion was the 2-0 win against Estonia at Wembley on 9 October 2015 – the same day as Jürgen Klopp’s inaugural press conference as Liverpool manager – with Roy Hodgson in charge of the national team, Dele Alli making his debut, Wayne Rooney receiving a trophy from Sir Bobby Charlton for becoming England’s record scorer and the football world taking in the news that Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini had been banned by Fifa.
Before that, Sterling’s only other goal for England came seven months earlier in another Euro 2016 qualifier: a 4-0 victory against Lithuania, also at Wembley. Sterling has just passed the three-year anniversary of his last England goal. There have been none in his 18 appearances of the Southgate era, despite often playing as a central striker. In time on the pitch, it is 30 hours and seven minutes.
All of which raises an obvious question: why? In ordinary circumstances, it would be tempting to think it might be a confidence issue, but Sterling does not give the impression that is the case. “I haven’t scored for a while but you have to keep your positivity, keep getting into the box,” he says. “Wait for your moment and the chances will arrive. You have to keep being persistent. The goals will come, I’m sure of that. I believe in myself.”
He has, after all, scored 46 goals for City since he last managed one for England, with only four players – Mohamed Salah, Harry Kane, Sergio Agüero and Jamie Vardy – outscoring him in the Premier League last season. Sterling is virtually a fixture in a title‑winning team that is regarded as possibly the most beautifully assembled club side of the Premier League era. Yet the paradox is that, for England, his only goals have been against the two nations currently 98th and 126th in Fifa’s world rankings.
“If we had the answer, we would probably have resolved it a few games ago,” Southgate said. “What do we do? We have to keep getting him in the right positions. We have to create chances for him and he has to keep getting in the right areas. The other night [against Croatia] there was a ball that flashed across the box and he was just behind the defender when he has to try to get across the front of those if he can. But I think it is a confidence thing and when the goal comes he will go on a scoring run.”
A confidence thing? “I don’t think his confidence is low but I think there are times when you can think a little bit too much about what you’re doing in certain moments,” Southgate said.
“It’s about having the freedom just to hit things. But this is one of the big challenges of international football. You know with your club – well, with his club – you will get another five chances in the next 10 or 15 minutes.
“You get fewer chances with us and sporadic games so you don’t get another go in the next week. This is part of dealing with international football and that is his next challenge. But I have to say that every challenge that has been put in front of him throughout his career – new players coming in, for example, over the last couple of years [at City] – he has risen to. He’s been tough enough to deal with those challenges and I expect him to come through this, too.”
Southgate will always defend his players and is particularly protective of Sterling because of the feeling that some parts of the media are too quick to jump on the former Liverpool player. The manager does recognise, though, that two goals in 2,983 minutes of international football is not an adequate return for a player in Sterling’s position. Sterling has been substituted in eight of his past 10 England appearances and every game he started in the World Cup. He has played a full game only four times since Southgate took the job two years ago.
Even stranger, this has been the part of Sterling’s career when he has purposefully modified his style to be more of a threat. “When I was a bit younger, I wasn’t too interested in scoring goals,” he says. “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.”
That, in short, means spending more time in the penalty area. “Before, I was going wide and trying to beat a player. Now I’m trying to get on the end of stuff, being around for scraps and trying to make goals for myself.
“I’m much more confident now when I’m in the penalty area so I feel the goals will come for England, as they have for City. I need to keep that going, especially with the national team because I need to get these goals going.”
On Monday, in the Estadio Benito Villamarín, would be a good time to start.