How to solve a problem like Raheem

Last night’s dramatic late win over Tunisia brought with it some key statistics:

  • Harry Kane’s first ever goals in a major tournament
  • The first time an England player scored two goals in a World Cup match since Gary Lineker against Cameroon in 1990
  • Raheem Sterling has now failed to score in his last 21 international matches, scoring only two goals in a total of 39 caps.

Following a hugely successful season with Manchester City in which he won his first Premier League trophy and scored a personal best 23 goals, his international form is of real concern for England’s tournament hopes.

A press vendetta

It’s been a strange summer for Sterling. Getting a tattoo on his leg, after the shameful way he spent money on his loving mother, has turned him into the poster boy for the supposed excesses of the modern young footballer.

Sterling has been the victim of a strange, mean-spirited campaign from certain quarters of the press – an operation with alarming racist undertones. That sickening little hack crusade could have de-railed even the most hardened of characters.

As it stands though, Sterling seems like, if you cut through the commotion, a perfectly normal and level-headed young man. And what a ridiculous overreaction for a story which essentially should have read, ‘man gets tattoo’.

Even so, all of this bluster threatens to miss the main point at issue here – his form for England is wreaking the place out.

Attacking intent against Tunisia

Last night, Sterling had to wait only four minutes of the Tunisia match for a chance to prove his doubters wrong, but he made a real mess of his finish.

The linesman flagged for offside but he was unaware. Sterling could only gamely laugh off what was a bizarre finish.

He was not the only one wasteful in front of goal, but this was a golden chance to kick-start his tournament in style. Lingard and Alli had chances and also looked worryingly short of composure.

This is not to single out Sterling as the only misfiring England attacker, simply that the longer this barren spell goes on, the more difficult it will become for him.

Southgate’s formation suggested Sterling would play in a fluid front two with Kane, although in reality it meant he was the most advanced of England’s attacking midfielders lying just behind the Tottenham striker.

Sterling bravely continued running in behind the Tunisian backline but to no avail.

Whichever way you cut it, if Sterling is to play in such an advanced position, he needs a goal, and quickly.

Criticism from Carragher

On the Telegraph’s World Cup podcast Jamie Carragher was typically forthright about Sterling’s hopes for a starting berth, instead claiming we could play two up front.

“I don’t think there’s a great goalscoring record from the players supporting Harry Kane – Sterling, Dele Alli, Lingard.

You may as well actually play with a striker, rather than Sterling playing there and dropping deep because there’s enough players there already”

The point Carragher makes is a fair one – that having Sterling play alongside Kane is basically just mimicking a traditional ‘two up front’, so you may as well start with a more natural goalscorer in Vardy.

It all feels too knee-jerky and simplistic though, as Sterling is a key component of England’s pressing early into matches as the attacking trio behind Kane look to hunt in packs.

The notion of having less defensively-minded players against Belgium is definitely not a comfortable one.

Raheem in Rio

It’s easy to forget that heading into the World Cup in Brazil four years ago, Sterling was our number one hope. Every major tournament in this country tends to have one player who we simply cannot afford to get injured (think 2002 Beckham, 2010 Rooney, 2018 Kane etc.). In 2014, Sterling was that man.

He nearly started the tournament in perfect fashion, although what appeared to be an early goal against Italy actually only hit the side netting. Ask most England fans, and they’ll remember that scenario like a JFK moment.

The pub I was in celebrated for a solid 5-10 minutes before realising there was a problem, the scoreboard was broken and it still read ‘0-0’.

In the end, neither Sterling nor his teammates proved themselves in what was a wash-out tournament for England. The hype around Sterling on the international stage simply disappeared with that tournament.

Stick with him for the Panama match

In my ratings of the England players’ performances last night, I wrote that Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Marcus Rashford deserve a place in the starting line-up against Panama.

While they showed real promise and a renewed sense of urgency from the bench, I now think that keeping Sterling in the team to get on the scoresheet against a very weak Panama side would be the best option.

Gareth Southgate has shown consistent bravery in selecting his England squad in the face of widespread criticism.

Now is the time for the boss to continue his patience with Sterling and get his tally up and running if we have real aspirations of heading into the final stages of the tournament.

 

Chris Henderson

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England 2-1 Tunisia: One sentence player ratings

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Jordan Pickford

Resolute enough performance and rarely tested but having guessed the right way for Sassi’s penalty, he really ought to have saved it.

Kyle Walker

Solid enough despite a clumsy foul for the penalty, although he should provide more impetus and urgency in possession given that he’s the most technically gifted of the back three.

Jon Stones

Settled into the game, and a stunning header which led to Kane’s first goal made up for some nervy misplaced passes when under little pressure from Tunisian forwards.

Harry Maguire

Similar to Stones, showed an admirable spirit and dominance in the air, but the odd loose pass was a concern and would be easily punished by better opposition.

Kieran Trippier

England’s best performer on the night as he looked comfortable on the ball and dangerous higher up the flank, particularly following the introduction of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Marcus Rashford.

Ashley Young

Worryingly petulant at times and, as is often the case, England’s attacks slowed down when he had to check back onto his favoured right foot when in advanced wide positions.

Jordan Henderson

A mature performance from one of England’s few real leaders, epitomised by a much underrated range of passing and an endless desire to be on the ball.

Jesse Lingard

A typically reliable source of energy and pressing when not in possession, but he coupled this with a hugely frustrating lack of composure in front of goal.

Dele Alli

Looked worryingly short of fitness and confidence and his casual demeanour will hopefully now lead to Rashford replacing him in the starting line-up against Panama.

Raheem Sterling

He may join Alli on the bench next Sunday as he showed an admirable desire to make runs in behind the Tunisian back line but too often his composure and finishing were left wanting.

Harry Kane

The best striker in world football showed both brilliant poaching instincts and a cool head in the face of constant Tunisian provocation.

Subs:

Marcus Rashford (68’)

Provided much-needed impetus to a lethargic-looking side with his persistence and willingness to run at defenders to make things happen.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek (80’)

A refreshing presence who offered more attacking prowess in 10 minutes than many of his counterparts in the previous 80.

Eric Dier (90+3’)

I can’t remember him touching the ball.

 

Chris Henderson

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England will win the 2018 FIFA World Cup

England

I’d like to think that I’m a level-headed person. You know, able not to fall too easily for tabloid bluster and sugary sentiment. I’d like to think that.

Recently though, I’m starting to question the very notion of logic and sound judgement. The phenomenon feels familiar – it hits these shores every four years.

Before a ball has been kicked in anger (most likely by Jordan Henderson), I firmly believe that England will win the 2018 FIFA World Cup. I need help.

If you’d asked the average fan on the street a year ago whether England had a chance of lifting the trophy in Russia, you’d have been told, not so politely, to f*ck off and up the medication.

Despite countless reasons to the contrary, as we step ever closer to the big kick off on Monday, I really believe we can do it.

Worrying signs of delusion

In the friendly against Brazil at Wembley in November, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Neymar casually toyed with our midfield like a cackling puppeteer.

Eric Dier was so confused by the swarm of yellow shirts that night that he was not so much on the infamous Barca ‘carousel’, more sent on a lengthy acid trip at Rio Carnival. It was painful to watch.

Brazil monkeyed around with us all evening long, although the match finished a promising 0-0. And so the delusions of grandeur continued full steam ahead.

Four years ago, we were out after two matches, eventually picking up one point and finishing fourth in the group stage behind Costa Rica. But let’s not get bogged down in pesky statistics. After all, Mark Twain once said:

“Some people use statistics like a drunk man uses a lamppost; more for support than illumination”

And so it goes.

Perhaps such a disjointed view of our hopes stems from the public no longer watching England qualifying matches in the same numbers or with the same gusto as years gone by.

During international breaks, people are now more concerned with missing a week of tinkering with their fantasy football teams than cheering on their national heroes.

And who can blame them? Hell, in qualifying, we required a last-ditch goal just to snatch a late draw against Scotland.

Hit the road, Jack

In spite of the ever-increasing optimism leading into the tournament, there was an outcry from large swathes of the English public following the omission of Jack Wilshere from the final squad.

Poor old Jack hadn’t played for England since we lost to You-Know-Who at Euro 2016. He started this season in the Arsenal U-23s (being sent off in the process) after Lewis Cook kept him out of the Bournemouth side last term.

For all the man’s genius, it would be fair to argue that Wenger lacked the gonads to get rid of Wilshere when he was clearly no longer up to scratch. A loan deal was merely a cop out.

It’s another string to the bow of Gareth Southgate. He made the right call despite widespread criticism.

Those crying about Wilshere simply haven’t been paying attention. Alas, in international football, all roads lead to self-deception.

Signs of potential 

But still. Still. You assess our options, and the pace of our attack looks unequalled. No other squad in world football can boast the raw speed of Vardy, Lingard, Rashford, Sterling, Alli and Loftus-Cheek. And most of them are young enough not to have been hollowed out by the ghosts of World Cups past.

Ahead of those speedy little urchins stands the best number nine striker in world football. The hurricane – a goal scorer so ruthless that only two months ago he swore on his child’s life that he’d flicked the ball with his head just to force through an appeal to the Dubious Goals Panel.

Crackers, but that’s the attitude that’ll bag the Golden Boot and fire us to World Cup glory in the process. Maybe.

Now that Southgate has shown a bit of tactical nous in converting Kyle Walker into a central defender in a back three format, you may as well start engraving Ol’ Blighty on the trophy right now.

Hope versus experience

David Baddiel once said that the reason Three Lions resonated with the public was that it echoed exactly what it means to be an England fan:

‘It’s not that we think we’re going to win, or that we’re going to lose either. It’s somewhere in between. It’s hope versus experience’

Our experience obviously shows us horrors so grave we dare not speak its name. Handballs and tears and sh*tting on the pitch and mullets and metatarsals and winkers and, of course, the Germans, on penalties.

Similar to how the will of the boxer is the final thing to go, so too is the hope of the England fan.

But don’t burden yourself with odds, statistics and sound logic, just say:

‘England will win the World Cup’

Sir Alf Ramsey said it, and for that he was labelled a pipe-dreaming loon.

Build it and they will come

Picture the statue of Sir Harry alongside Sir Bobby over at Wembley Park.

Play Three Lions, World in Motion and Vindaloo full blast and on a continuous loop between now and kick off on Monday.

Envisage the documentary of Sir Gareth in 2038 – the former boss piping on a Vype ePen12, chuckling about how nobody gave us a chance and that nice guys don’t always finish last after all.

It only sounds foolish until it’s done.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup. Maybe, just maybe.

 

Chris Henderson

 

Connect: Twitter

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