Was it Manchester City’s false nine attacking model that did for Raheem Sterling?
As the Blues compensated for the loss of Sergio Aguero to injury, later relinquishing their prolific goal-ace to Barcelona, Pep Guardiola turned to a three-pronged attack minus a focal point, and with the system prioritising attributes that were not Sterling’s greatest strengths, perhaps the winger struggled to adapt?
Certainly from being such a pivotal presence up front, the England star’s stature began to gradually diminish at the Etihad, as evidenced by his lack of playing time in the Champions League across his final season.
As City navigated a path to the semi-finals, Sterling made only four starts in 12, while in the Premier League it was not unusual to see him dropped for the biggest games.
For his country meanwhile, the explosive rise to prominence of Bukayo Saka saw his place under threat.
Conversely, maybe it was simply a loss of form that saw him slide from the reckoning, a dip that in time affected the confidence of a confidence player, exacerbating matters greatly.
What is undeniable is that in his last year and a bit in the North-West, the winger had become a shadow of the impactful talent who had fired 20 goals in a season a few years back before cementing his importance to England with a string of goals at Euro 2020.
Whatever the reasons for Sterling’s incremental decline at the club where he’d won four league titles, dominating the football betting every step of the way – and it should be said that a protracted contract dispute hardly helped his cause – the upshot was that in the summer of 2022 Chelsea swooped, shelling out £47.5m for a former leading light whose light had faded.
His move to Chelsea therefore was understandably painted as a fresh start, and indeed his career shift started brightly with four goal involvements in his opening five outings for his new club. Only then the stasis resumed. The running down blind alleys. The anonymous displays.
By the season’s end, Sterling had accrued a meagre six goals and was fast becoming the forgotten man of English football.
Certainly in the capital there were extenuating circumstances to partly excuse his woes, not least Chelsea’s collapse into crisis that saw four different managers at the helm. Several months out with a hamstring problem was a considerable hindrance too.
Yet still, going into this summer, it was no longer a question as to whether Sterling’s malaise was temporary. It was now about whether he could rediscover who he once was. With the situation now critical, it demanded a comeback.
And so far, so good, for the 28-year-old who seems to be revived under new manager Mauricio Pochettino and embracing the challenge of reinstalling his reputation.
Benefitting hugely from a summer spent running up hills and sharpening his fitness with judo sessions, Sterling has torn into 2023/24 with relish and determination, impressing in Chelsea’s opening day clash with Liverpool, then completing six successful dribbles against West Ham.
Prior to the recent international break, he scored and assisted at Burnley.
It’s early days yet of course, but the swagger appears to be back, the purpose to his running, and maybe it’s telling that despite possessing a hefty squad, Pochettino is starting the England man weekly.
The betting and jury remains out on whether Raheem Sterling can reclaim past glories, to get back to his peak. But for the first time in a long time he’s heading in the right direction for sure.
*Credit for all of the photos in this article belongs to Alamy*