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09th Jul 2018

World Cup Comments: In defence of Raheem Sterling, England’s undeserving punching bag

He has once again been unfairly singled out for criticism

Reuben Pinder


England are in the semi-finals, but many fans have still found something to complain about

Football matches are always remembered for their key moments. A player’s good performance can be rewritten as a bad one due to one mistake, and a poor performance can be remembered as a good one if that player scores a goal.

That has never been more true than during England’s World Cup quarter-final with Sweden, after which Raheem Sterling was universally handed the worst rating of all of England’s players, and Dele Alli was widely praised for his part in the convincing victory.


Over the course of the game, Sterling consistently stretched Sweden’s defence, forcing their terrified defenders back towards their own goal and contributing hugely towards England’s dominance of the ball.

Dele Alli, meanwhile, was sloppy in possession and did not create any clear cut chances for England, largely coasting through the game. But such is his tendency to pop up with a goal, he arrived at the back post with a trademark run to head England’s second goal past Olsen and secure their place in the semi-finals. That’s why he’s in the team, and that’s why nobody will have an issue with him starting against Croatia, despite a mostly sub-par performance.


However, despite making more positive contributions than most of his teammates, Raheem Sterling was once again singled out for criticism. It is not new to him; he is usually criticised for how he spends his money, so being called shit for not passing the ball soon enough probably makes for a pleasant change, but it’s still not right.

All things considered, Sterling deserves praise for playing this well despite the never ending smear campaign against him from the right-wing media. The anti-Sterling agenda continued into the tournament, as a match report on England’s penalty shoot-out win over Colombia win focussed on Sterling’s failure to score. This deranged obsession with everything he does seems to have crept into the public’s psyche and led to him being hyper-criticised for his every touch.

In this match specifically, the moments that were the root cause of the criticism levelled his way both came early on.

The first was offside, but Sterling should nonetheless have put the ball in the net after Jesse Lingard’s delicately placed through ball put him one vs one with the goalkeeper. Alas, he didn’t and he was flagged for offside, there’s no need for any further dissection of that incident.


The second, when Sterling took down Jordan Henderson’s lofted pass with a deft touch, rounded the Swedish goalkeeper but had to cut back and make a snap decision, was more complicated than meets the eye.

The obvious square pass to an onrushing Dele Alli was cut off by a defender, Harry Kane was almost too close to Sterling to pass to him, and the Swedish defence were regrouping. It made sense for him to shift the ball to his right and try to shoot, and he should not be lambasted for the fact that it was blocked.

Not only was the criticism of those two incidents drastically over the top, but the amount of focus on them shows that the quality that he brings to the side is being ignored. His link-up play between the front line and the attacking midfielders has been key, as well as his unselfish runs in behind the opposition defence that help to create space for everyone else.


It is also worth remembering that he is not playing in his most familiar position. He may have always dreamed of playing as a number 10, but his best form has come from the wing at Manchester City. Due to his position, he often finds himself receiving the ball with his back to goal and four players around him. It shouldn’t be a shock that he sometimes loses possession.

While Marcus Rashford sits on the bench, it is easy and understandable to call for him to replace Sterling, but Southgate knows what he is doing. He knows what Sterling brings to the team and believes in him. And if we’ve learned anything over the past couple of years, it’s that Gareth Southgate deserves our trust.

This is not a plea to blindly praise Sterling because of past (and current) media treatment, but a reminder that jumping on his back at every opportunity is a side effect of that treatment. He deserves and has earned the same support that the rest of the squad receive, so let’s give it to him.