If there is one thing that Alan Hansen used to drum home every Saturday night during his stint on Match of the Day, it is that defenders hate pace. Rarely has Hansen’s sentiment been highlighted more than during the first half of England’s World Cup semi-final when Raheem Sterling ran the Croatians ragged.
There had been calls for Sterling to be dropped, admittedly from mostly ‘yer da’ types who were angry that he missed a decent opportunity to score against Sweden. Yet what Sterling has lacked at this World Cup in goals, he has made up for with his sheer work-rate and intelligent movement in attacking areas of the pitch.
Croatia’s centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida just could not cope with him as he darted from right to left and back again down their respective channels and towards goal.
In previous games, Sterling has often dropped off Harry Kane in an attempt to link up with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard in midfield and the wing-backs out wide. However, this time he was far more direct, playing on the last shoulder of the defence and zooming off towards goal rather than retreating away from it.
This stretched the pitch out to England’s advantage with Croatia understandably wary of playing a high line.
It also meant that England, for all their controlling play and short passes in midfield, had the option to bend the ball into the corners for Sterling to chase.
Lovren played alongside Sterling for a season at Anfield and he bore the look of someone who had been skinned by him before in training when he was beaten in a footrace by the touchline midway through the opening 45 minutes.
When Croatia belatedly remembered this was a World Cup semi-final and started to take control of the game, Sterling and his strike partner Harry Kane inevitably suffered, dropping in to help try and contain the onslaught.
Admittedly, he looked spent, but it wasn’t a complete coincidence that England’s goal threat was virtually reduced to nothing after Sterling went off on 74 minutes.
In the aftermath of England’s elimination in the semi-final, there will be some that might point to Sterling’s lack of goals and single assist this World Cup as a sign of under performance. Nothing can be further from the truth. Sterling adapted his position for the good of the team, sacrificing his roving right wing role for Manchester City to become England’s work-horse support striker.
Rather than getting on the end of moves as he does in sky blue, Sterling has facilitated them in the white shirt of England in Russia through his runs and his drawing of fouls.
Kane should win the golden boot, Harry Maguire, John Stones and Kieran Trippier could be in the team of the tournament and Jordan Pickford has a shot at the golden glove.
But Sterling, as much as he has been criticised, has also been excellent.