‘Score goals,” Raheem Sterling said, neatly summing up what his job is within Thomas Tuchel’s intricate tactical system at Chelsea. “I think football’s that simple: keep the ball out of the net and the forwards and midfielders have to score the goals.”
It has been a glaring weakness under Tuchel, who is clearly intent on ripping up his attack and starting again. Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku have gone, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Hakim Ziyech could be the next to leave, and the hope is that signing Sterling for £50m from Manchester City will go a long way towards solving Chelsea’s lack of ruthlessness in the final third.
Sterling, who was the first signing made by Chelsea’s new owners, does not need anyone to teach him how to score goals. The 27-year-old pointed out that his best position is on the wing – “That’s where I know the game like the back of my hand,” he said at his official unveiling as a Chelsea player – but that was followed by an acknowledgment that he is well suited to playing in a fluid attack. “I want to be in and around the box a lot more and trying to focus on runs more centrally,” Sterling said. “But, of course, I’m here to be part of the system and play the position the manager wants me.”
Tuchel has choices when it comes to where to deploy Sterling. The England forward can play on either flank, but he started in the middle on his debut in Chelsea’s tepid 1-0 win over Everton last weekend. “I enjoy floating about and getting on the ball,” Sterling said. “Against Everton I played as a false nine and I’ll always be happy where I can be effective.”
Sterling looked bright against Everton. He had a goal disallowed in the first half and was unlucky not to score during the dying stages. His desire to get into goalscoring positions was clearly evident. It is one of Sterling’s greatest assets, that knack of finding space in the six-yard box to finish off a low cross, and Chelsea will be stronger if they work out how to play to his strengths.
Everything suggests that this is a smart move from Chelsea. Sterling is a leader who can guide the younger players in Tuchel’s squad. He thought back to his early days at Liverpool and remembered looking up to Steven Gerrard. “No matter how old you are, it’s good to try to nurture younger people in whatever profession it is,” Sterling said. “You don’t want a hostile environment for them to come into, you want it to be one [in which] they can flourish.
“When I was young I had someone like Steven Gerrard around me. When I went into the national team, he had his arm around me and that makes you a lot more relaxed around the camp so you can do your best. That’s all I ever try to do. Have jokes and laugh, but at the same time get the work done and feel comfortable.”
Chelsea’s youngsters will look up to a driven individual. Sterling, who is enjoying something of a homecoming given that he grew up in north-west London, still has so much to achieve. He was a surprise starter when City lost to Tuchel’s Chelsea in the Champions League final in 2021. “I haven’t played CL football with Chelsea yet,” Sterling said. “They have obviously won it. I haven’t. They have got the bragging rights. But again, I am here to try and win it.”
Sterling, who joined City from Liverpool in 2015, has more to achieve. He scored 131 goals in all competitions for City and won four Premier League titles, but his final two years in Manchester were challenging. It was not easy for Sterling when Pep Guardiola started to leave him on the bench in the big games. “It was a big surprise,” he said. “A massive surprise … a change of events all of a sudden. It’s something I had to handle and that’s why I’m here.”
Did Guardiola ever explain why Sterling had lost his place? “Me and the manager and the people at the club know exactly what the reasons were,” Sterling said. “I tried to play my football and overcome the situation but it couldn’t be done so I had to move on.”
Sterling has cost more than £100m in transfer fees, earned 77 England caps and won 10 major trophies. He can live with people underestimating him. “As long as I give my best and I am still enjoying my football I am happy and content,” he said. “I don’t need any recognition from anyone else.”
All that matters now is energising Chelsea’s misfiring attack. Tottenham are the visitors to Stamford Bridge on Sunday and there would not be many better ways for Sterling to endear himself to his new fans than by scoring against Antonio Conte’s side. “I know exactly what I want from my life and football,” he said. “It’s a perfect time to have a new challenge.”