International football in contemporary times is a different beast altogether, with two distinct schools of thought prevailing " while some nations choose to ride on individual brilliance, there are others who prefer to operate within a system. It mostly depends on the managers at the helm, but also on the kind of players at disposal. For a stage as grand as the FIFA World Cup, a combination of elite footballers within a dynamic tactical system is often the easiest route to strike gold, as Didier Deschamps has managed to do with France, leading Les Bleus to successive finals in 2016 Euro and 2018 World Cup.
"Sometimes we judge him about 'he missed that goal', 'he missed again that shot', but the number of actions he creates, the assists today, he creates fouls, penalties, because he's so fast and quick, sometimes he is unstoppable in those situations," Pep Guardiola said last season about Sterling's dramatic transformation when he managed to net 23 Premier League goals.
"And the most magnificent thing is he is 23 years old, so he is still focused, keeping the desire to get better, as a player. His understanding of the game is global: he's a guy who can create inside, make a movement outside, dribbling, runs in behind. Still, he misses simple balls, and he has to be more aggressive in these kinds of things," Guardiola had acknowledged that Sterling is still a work-in-progress but the Manchester City boss had also reflected upon the tenets of his game which Southgate has managed to harness successfully.
The 3-1-4-2 formation has been Southgate's staple choice this summer " Jordan Henderson is rendered to do the dirty work at the base of the midfield while Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard provide two mobile passing outlets, intent on disrupting the opponent's system, but it is the versatility offered by Raheem Sterling as a floating link between Harry Kane and the midfield which makes the system tick.
Forget the cutbacks across the goal amidst a crowded penalty area or the clever runs behind the defence to create goalscoring opportunities, Sterling's tactical intelligence makes him the perfect candidate for the situations when England want to press high up the field " whether he puts the finishing touch himself or selflessly sets up a teammate, Sterling threatens to produce moments of magic every time he receives the ball and that is a quality to be heralded, not ridiculed.
A day does not go by when Sterling doesn't find a mention among the British newspapers and tabloids " anything and everything from his choice of breakfast diner to his latest tattoo questioned and analysed, his brushes with controversies like the fashion in which he orchestrated his transfer from Liverpool to Manchester City and his delay in joining up with the World Cup squad highlighted at every juncture.
The flak Sterling receives doesn't bother him as much anymore, in his own words, the youngster focussing on his duties instead.
"Every player wants to win the World Cup, every country wants to win the World Cup, so anything less than that is not really a bonus. Of course you can take positives out of everything, but you won't be entirely happy if you don't win it," Sterling had opined " his style of dry martini may not suit the English media's tastebuds accustomed to gin, but Raheem Sterling's virtuosity on the ball is necessary for England to pour a celebratory cocktail in the remaining games.