Resilient Sterling repays Southgate’s trust with crucial England goals

The anatomy of the goal that changed everything for England, sparking the historic Euro 2020 win against Germany on Tuesday and a mass plot lossage in the Wembley stands, showcased all of the best qualities of Raheem Sterling.

There was the burst away from Thomas Müller and in between Antonio Rüdiger and Toni Kroos, the ability to feel the seam of space and blast into it, and then the pass up to Harry Kane. He continued his run and, when Kane went left to Jack Grealish, Sterling darted for the through ball. It was not on. Then came the best bit.

Sterling was offside but he slammed on the breaks, drifting back and inside as Grealish played in the overlapping Luke Shaw. Sterling could see across the line. Onside. Then he went again.

In many respects, it is a metaphor for Sterling’s career. A move breaks down, a door closes on him, a setback presents itself – often minor, sometimes major – and he goes again. Sterling’s remorselessness of spirit, his refusal to be cowed, has lit his path to the point where he has been England’s most important player at the European Championship. When Shaw crossed and he went again, the tap-in was his third goal of the tournament.

Each has been broadly similar, Sterling getting on to crosses in between the posts – first against Croatia in the 1-0 win, then the Czech Republic in another 1-0 win, now against Germany for a 1-0 lead; England won 2-0 after Kane’s late second to set up a quarter-final with Ukraine in Rome on Saturday.

Sterling’s journey at senior international level has taken in an extended scoring slump – two goals in his first 45 appearances – and so many questions from critical fans, so much abuse on social media.

After the 1-1 draw with Russia at Euro 2016, he described himself as “The Hated One” on Instagram and he was possibly the only player that the nation did not take to their hearts after the team’s run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals. Sterling’s performances were underwhelming.

Before this championship there was a debate over whether Gareth Southgate should start him and Sterling’s irritation was plain when he was asked in a broadcast interview after the Croatia game whether his excellent performance had justified his inclusion.

There is the sense that Sterling draws some of his fuel from the negativity thrown his way. “Please, keep asking the questions,” Southgate said, with a nod towards the one after Croatia. “Because if we cannot motivate him, everyone else will certainly be able to.”

The notion that Sterling ought not to have started was based on his struggles at Manchester City in the final months of the season. From 10 March, he lost his place as a regular and missed some big games, although not the biggest – the Champions League final defeat against Chelsea.

It has not taken too much reading between the lines to feel Sterling’s frustration at City, where his rhythm and confidence have fractured; the club will listen to offers for him this summer.

But Southgate trusts Sterling because of what he has done in an England shirt, especially since October 2018, when he scored twice in the 3-2 Nations League win against Spain in Seville. It ended his personal drought, spectacularly so. He has 15 goals in his past 20 England appearances.

“Raheem was probably only one of the players to come back from the World Cup with a different feeling and I talked to him at length about that,” Southgate said. “I think Seville was really a liftoff moment for him. He had been scoring for his club but had not been able to translate that across. Now I think he feels happy in our environment, feels he can be himself, knows the respect we have for him. He has been a huge threat for every opponent at this tournament.”

Sterling’s backstory adds a romantic note to his starring role; he grew up 500 yards from Wembley, he watched the stadium being rebuilt and he dreamed of one day scoring there for England at a major finals. But it is the steeliness of his mentality that has been the overriding theme, the capacity to impose himself on the occasion.

When England were overrun in the first 10 minutes against Germany, as a white-hot atmosphere seemingly scrambled them, it was Sterling who helped to lead the response, his speed and movement a source of reassurance. And when the team needed somebody to make the difference, he stepped up.

“Raheem is a fighter,” Southgate said. “He has got an incredible resilience and hunger. He has developed over the last couple of years this real hunger to score. He is finding himself in these areas and his drive is fantastic. We know the journey he has been on with England and I am so happy for him to be able to deliver the performances he has. To deliver them at Wembley will have been really special for him. His goals return [since Seville] is absolutely incredible.”

Sterling flirted with disaster after his goal against Germany, misplacing a pass on 81 minutes that allowed Kai Havertz to send Müller clean through. Sterling had his hands on his head because Müller had to equalise and who knows how things would have worked out if he had found the bottom corner instead of dragging wide?

Sterling sank to the ground in relief. His luck was in, although maybe he had made it himself.

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