Among the reams of column inches and hours of airtime devoted to discussing Raheem Sterling’s scuffle with England team-mate Joe Gomez this week, one consequence has been largely overlooked.
Manager Gareth Southgate’s decision to drop Sterling for one game – Thursday’s European Championship qualifier with Montenegro at Wembley – has robbed him of his most influential player.
In doing so, it has also thrown down the gauntlet to England’s other attackers, whose output has been placed firmly in the shade by that of Sterling in recent international fixtures.
Sterling’s importance to Southgate’s England has been clear for some time, especially since the post-2018 World Cup switch to a 4-3-3 system. Even still, his numbers this year are remarkable.
Of the 20 non-penalty goals scored by an England player in 2019, 15 were netted or assisted by Sterling. He personally scored eight – twice as many as captain Harry Kane, who has relied heavily on spot-kicks.
Of Kane’s four in open play, Sterling set up three. The Manchester City forward also laid on two apiece for Ross Barkley and Jadon Sancho. When England score, it is almost always through him.
England and Southgate are incredibly fortunate to have a player now flourishing on the world stage as he has for some time in the Premier League with back-to-back champions City.
But perhaps they have sleepwalked into an over-reliance on his energy, movement and prolific finishing. What happens, for instance, if Sterling is not available for Euro 2020?
From David Beckham in 2002 to Wayne Rooney four years later and again in 2010, England are no strangers to seeing star players injured in the lead-up to a major tournament.
Montenegro may not present the sternest of tests of England’s potency given that Southgate’s men registered a 5-1 victory when the teams met in Podgorica in March.
That scoreline does not, however, reflect what was at times an uncomfortable evening on which the hosts took a surprise lead and Sterling was the subject of racist taunts.
More to the point, this time England will be without the player who grabbed the headlines by scoring one, assisting another and finishing the match cupping his ear to his abusers on the terraces.
In Sterling’s absence there will be extra scrutiny of Kane, whose own steady stream of England goals has owed much to his nerveless penalty-taking. Four of his eight in 2019 have been spot-kicks.
The striker’s form has come under the spotlight as Tottenham have struggled this term.
His return of 10 goals from 15 appearances is good, although three were penalties and he went five games without scoring for Spurs in open play from 10 August to 21 September. He is also without a goal in his last 269 minutes of football.
More encouragingly, Kane fired on all cylinders in England’s last match, the 6-0 thrashing of Bulgaria in Sofia, scoring once and setting up three more.
Marcus Rashford would be the most logical choice to assume Sterling’s usual spot on the left of the attack, with Sancho deployed on the right.
The Manchester United man, too, has something to prove, having shown only flashes of his talent this season for club or country.
As with Kane, some recent signs offer cause for optimism. Rashford ended a six-match drought with a rocket of a strike to open the scoring in Bulgaria last month.
Since then, his form for United has drastically improved, with six goals in seven games coinciding with the return to centre-forward duties of Anthony Martial, which in turn has allowed Rashford to resume his favoured role on the left flank.
Callum Hudson-Odoi is an alternative to Rashford or Sancho against Montenegro, although he is not yet starting regularly again for Chelsea following his return from long-term injury.
Southgate may prefer to use Hudson-Odoi in a more experimental line-up for Tuesday’s final group fixture in Kosovo if, as expected, England wrap up qualification with a game to spare.
Whatever his selection, the absence of Sterling should prove a useful exercise for England in the event that he is forced into a more sustained spell on the sidelines.
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