Sterling did not play in either of England’s two warm-up games after starting the Champions League final for Manchester City
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Raheem Sterling is expecting to start England’s first game of the European Championships against Croatia with manager Gareth Southgate considering sticking with a back four.
Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish is still sweating on his inclusion, along with Marcus Rashford who could find himself behind Manchester City star Phil Foden, who started with Sterling in England’s last competitive game.
Sterling, who has been awarded an MBE for his anti-racism work, has not played in either of England’s two warm-up games after starting the Champions League final for City and has not been in his best form for his club.
But Sterling is banking on Southgate’s loyalty and the fact he has performed well for England this season, even when things had not been going smoothly for him at City.
Sterling started England’s last competitive game, the World Cup qualifying victory over Poland, on the left side, with Manchester City team-mate Foden on the right, and won the penalty from which Harry Kane opened the scoring.
With fitness doubts hanging over Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire, 26-year-old Sterling is also one of the more experienced members of Southgate’s squad.
Speaking to ITV, Southgate said: “We are going to have some young players on the pitch there is no doubt about that. So how do we balance that with players that have had big match experience and are good talkers? In any team, you have to have the balance right, be able to defend and pose the opposition a threat.”
Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland reminded fans desperate to see all of England’s attacking talent start together that “this is not fantasy football”. “I would say only this, going back to the World Cup in 2018, for example, Argentina, they had Dybala, Di Maria, Aguero, Higuain, Lionel Messi,” said Holland.
“Icardi didn’t make the squad. So you have an amazing array of talent, but they went out in the round of 16 averaging three goals against every game. This is not fantasy football. It is nice to play that game, but you can’t just throw four or five players together.
“What that team showed is that if you try to cram too many in you don’t even get the best of the individuals that if you play with fewer, they can provide. So our challenge is clear, we have to find the right balance. That will differ from game-to-game and I think that will look different in the first minute than it does in the 90th.”
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Holland also suggested Southgate could utilise all five of his permitted substitutions and may change formations within games.
“The five subs I think is a good idea,” he said. “I think the five subs could be good for us. Never more than now has the importance of starters and finishers to the game – it’s highly likely that 16 players will be involved in most games.
“I see it is quite possible we start with one formation and finish with another, at times. Players are well drilled with both and it is up to us to choose the best one for the best opponent given the form our players are in.
“The modern-day footballer is used to adapting and I think we have a situation where in March we played 4-3-3 and in the autumn we played 3-4-3 and we were happy with both. We got reasonable results in both. We beat the number one team in the world playing 3-4-3 and our results in March were good.”
Mason Mount is set to play a key part for Southgate’s team, as the Chelsea midfielder will be relied upon to press high up the pitch and to put Croatia under pressure.
As revealed by Telegraph Sport, Southgate gave Rashford, Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Dominic Calvert-Lewin a dressing down at half-time in the final warm-up victory over Romania for not putting their opponents under enough pressure.
Mount’s inclusion will certainly help to solve that issue and – just as Frank Lampard was and Thomas Tuchel has become – Southgate is a huge fan of the 22-year-old and sees him as being a key player for England in this tournament.
Mount played in an advanced position in front of Declan Rice, who will start on Sunday, and Kalvin Phillips against Poland and was excellent at winning back possession and interchanging with his Chelsea team-mate Ben Chilwell.
With Harry Maguire not expected to be available to start on Sunday, Southgate has considered whether or not to revert back to a back three, but he has spent much of this week preparing with a back four.
That could mean Tyrone Mings retaining his place and partnering John Stones, having started both of England’s warm-up games, ahead of Conor Coady and Ben White.
On Maguire’s fitness and whether or not he has any chance of facing Croatia, Southgate said: “He is progressing really well. It is still a long shot, but we are still checking in daily and he is further ahead than he thought he might be at this point. So we are certainly not going to rule it out.”
Why Southgate retains so much faith in Sterling despite underwhelming form
By Jason Burt
Raheem Sterling has his MBE. But does he have his place in Gareth Southgate’s starting line-up for the opening Euro 2020 group game against Croatia?
The 26-year-old has been recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours for his work campaigning against racism and the indications are that, despite the clamour for change, the England manager will keep faith with him.
The fact is that under Southgate, when fit, Sterling has played all the important games. Dropping the 26-year-old now, even if there is logic to it given his dip in form, would be a big step even if the England management have been at pains to point out this tournament will be one where teams can be expected to use all five of the substitutions they will be permitted.
Given England’s attacking options it means that although Sterling and his Manchester City team-mate Phil Foden are expected to start on Sunday neither are likely to play the full 90 minutes. Southgate has big weapons off the bench in Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish but history has shown he does not quickly lose faith with players who have performed under him.
It would be a surprise not to see Sterling in the starting XI and the player’s demeanour since joining up with the England squad has suggested he is confidence. Sterling has also been chosen for the last 25 meaningful matches under Southgate stretching back to a World Cup qualifier against Slovakia in September 2017.
There was one exception. Sterling was left out of a qualifier against Montenegro at Wembley in November 2019 after his altercation with Joe Gomez at St George’s Park.
But Southgate, as Foden has also discovered after being sent home in disgrace from Iceland at the start of the season, is willing to forgive and Sterling has also benefitted from that and – for England – repaid that faith even if he looked anxious in the March internationals which probably reflected how under pressure he was at City.
Despite being a year younger than captain Harry Kane he is also, with 61 appearances, not just England’s most experienced forward but the most capped player in the squad. Only Kane, with 33 appearances, has played more than Sterling’s 29 competitive games for England under Southgate.
That will all count for something in Southgate’s mind especially with neither Harry Maguire nor Jordan Henderson likely to start this weekend. Southgate may reason he needs Sterling for what he has done, and the influence he has on the other players who do look up to him, as much as what he can do.
Jordan Henderson is not expected to start against Croatia
“To win, which we know is the challenge, we need players with experience of big matches,” said Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland and although he went on to reference the fact that although most of the squad have not had previous tournament experience seven did play in the Champions League final it would suggest Sterling will feature.
He was actually a surprise starter, though, in that final which City lost to Chelsea having been replaced by Riyad Mahrez on the right for his club and with Foden down the left following the Manchester derby defeat in March. In fact Sterling only started one Premier League game in the final two months of the season although he was in the team for the Carabao Cup final.
Southgate has also suggested he does not like to select players who are not featuring regularly for their clubs partly because it sends out the wrong message to the rest of the squad. But it is not a hard and fast rule.
Sterling also brings pace with Kyle Walker, his City team-mate, who is regarded as the quickest player in the squad stating that he is the only one who can challenge him over 50 metres. That could be crucial to the way England want to play with at least one forward who can ‘run in behind’.
Sterling himself has the appearance of a man assured of his place. He has looked relaxed and happy at England’s training base and talked up the enjoyment of playing the tournament Wembley. “The manager is the manager. He’ll make his decision at the end of the day. He knows his players more than anyone. I’m just happy to be in a space where there’s so many talented young players,” he said.
Whether Sterling goes on to have a major impact on the tournament remains to be seen, but he has already left his mark on this squad’s fight for racial equality. With such a focus on the England players’ decision to take a knee before matches, it feels relevant that Sterling is honoured on the eve of their opening fixture for his work.
“I am grateful to have been recognised but my priority is to try to help to educate society and myself. If it doesn’t start from within, then there’s no way you can help others,” he said.
“My motivation for racial equality is to get people to understand the difficulties people from diverse backgrounds face and create an environment where everybody is equal. I feel we are starting to make a step in the right direction, but we still have a lot of work to do.
“There are still a lot of things we can get better at as a society such as social media with people taking more accountability. I think that is a major factor in achieving the ultimate goal of racial equality.”
Sterling has also been a keen participant in a game called “21” which has also included Rashford, Ben Chilwell, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Jude Bellingham and Mason Mount and is played on the basketball court that has been constructed in the foyer of the team hotel.
“There is a group of us, around 10, who play a knockout game there in the evenings. It’s a fun way to pass the time in the hotel,” Chilwell said. Whether Sterling makes the football team as well remains to be seen but it would be a big call to leave him out.