Raheem Sterling felt his position at Manchester City had become untenable. He had been there seven years, enjoying remarkable success, but had been left “fuming, raging” by the sense that the sacrifices he had made had not been respected. “Everyone wants to feel wanted,” he said. “Football is no different.” And so he decided to leave.
At 27 years old, he was a regular player for England. This was a significant change for him. He had achieved four league titles with City, but this move could potentially define his career. He had been a part of Brendan Rodgers’ impressive but unsuccessful attempt at winning the title with Liverpool. He had also played a crucial role in Pep Guardiola’s team. Where else could he find the same appeal? Where could he reach his peak without it feeling underwhelming? He ultimately chose Chelsea, who had recently won the Champions League under Thomas Tuchel.
After a period of sixteen months, Chelsea is getting ready to play against City on Sunday. Sadly, Sterling is no longer a part of the England team and his reputation has decreased to the point where any good performance is seen as a comeback. With the changes happening at Chelsea under Todd Boehly, Sterling is now working with his fifth manager. Things change quickly at Stamford Bridge.
The chaos caused by Chelsea’s win over Tottenham on Monday was expected due to the turmoil both teams have experienced in the past year. When Mauricio Pochettino and Ange Postecoglou shook hands at the end of the game, it was hard to believe that it had only been 15 months since a 2-2 draw between the two teams resulted in Tuchel and Antonio Conte fighting over a handshake. This incident seemed like it could be the beginning of a petty and entertaining rivalry.
In the past, Chelsea’s expenditures under Boehly and Clearlake were only £243m. If Sterling seemed confused during the last season, it’s not surprising. He was brought in by Tuchel during a time when it was said that no previous Chelsea manager had as much influence over recruitment. It’s likely that he was promised a clear role within the club and chose to spend his prime years in this environment. However, just a month into the season, Tuchel was fired for reasons that have yet to be fully clarified.
Whatever Sterling had been promised, it presumably didn’t entail operating as a wing-back as increasing numbers of young wide forwards queued up in the corridors at Cobham. Last season, his pass completion in the Premier League fell below 80% for the first time in his career and he recorded his worst success rate for take-ons. Perhaps that’s understandable: it would have been a miracle had he managed to learn the name of every arrival at Chelsea last season, let alone been able to remember where they might position themselves.
This is both a symptom and a contributing factor to Chelsea’s issues. Athletes perform well in systems that are suitable for them, when their teammates work to minimize their weaknesses and maximize their strengths, and when they feel at ease and confident in their environment. It’s understandable that Sterling may have felt unsettled during the turmoil of last season. The decrease in his passing and dribbling statistics can be explained by a lack of support from his teammates, which forced him to take more risks.
Unfortunately, additional mishaps occurred. Sterling’s residence was broken into while he was in Qatar for the World Cup. Fearing for his family’s safety, he returned home, resulting in him missing the victory over Senegal in the last-16 round. Despite being brought on as a substitute in the quarter-final loss to France, Sterling has not been chosen for the England team since then.
In January, he experienced a hamstring injury while playing against City and was unable to fully recover before the season ended. There was a concern that if he lost his explosive speed, he would decline like Michael Owen or Fernando Torres, who were considered top players in their late 20s. Additionally, he constantly had to adjust to new positions and teammates.
Chelsea and Sterling both disappointed each other. Sterling, a player who relies on confidence, was affected by the unease of the team. This was evident in his performance, as seen in his record of 56 goals and assists for City in the league from 2019-2022 and being named England’s best player at Euro 2020. However, last season, he struggled and lacked his usual instinct, making a significant difference in his performance.
Following the challenges faced in the previous season, Sterling has unexpectedly emerged as one of the more experienced players at Chelsea. At 28 years old, he is the third oldest member of the team, behind Thiago Silva and backup goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli. As a player who has appeared somewhat reserved or marginal on the field, he now must take on a leadership role.
His performance has significantly improved this season. He made changes to his diet, including a period of being vegan, in order to regain his sharpness. Additionally, he trained with a judo club during the summer, as seen in videos on social media where he sprints up hills. His success rate in attempting take-ons has returned to the level it was during his time at Liverpool, prior to being coached by Guardiola. He played as a right-sided player in the first six league games of the season (three in front of a back three and three in front of a back four), but has since moved to the left after Cole Palmer joined the team.
The victory at home against Luton, where he scored two goals, was likely his strongest showing in the past few years. While no one has truly stood out for the team this season, Sterling has proven to be one of the top three most dependable players, along with Palmer and Conor Gallagher.
However, even with James Maddison’s injury, he was not included in the England squad on Thursday. It seems that due to the abundance of choices available in his position, he is currently on the outskirts. Both Sterling and Chelsea have a difficult road ahead after the tumultuous events of the past year.