Sterling became increasingly unhappy with his situation at Manchester City. Despite spending seven successful years there, he was frustrated and angry at feeling undervalued for the sacrifices he had made. Like anyone, he wanted to feel appreciated and this ultimately led to his decision to depart from the team.
At the age of 27, he was a regular player for England. This was a significant change for him. He had previously won four league titles with City, but this new move had the potential to define his career. He had been a crucial part of Brendan Rodgers’ impressive but ultimately 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 such appeal? Where could he spend the prime of his career without it feeling like a letdown? He ultimately chose to join Chelsea, who had recently won the Champions League under Thomas Tuchel.
After a span of 16 months, Sterling finds himself facing City with Chelsea on Sunday. He has been dropped from the England squad and his reputation has taken a hit, causing every good performance to be seen as a comeback. With Todd Boehly leading the charge for change, Sterling is now under his fifth manager at Chelsea. Things change quickly at Stamford Bridge.
The chaos caused by Chelsea’s win over Tottenham on Monday was not surprising, considering the chaotic year both teams have had. The encounter between Mauricio Pochettino and Ange Postecoglou after the game was hard to believe, as it had only been 15 months since the last time Chelsea and Spurs faced off, resulting in a handshake tug-of-war between Tuchel and Antonio Conte. This incident seemed like the beginning of a petty but entertaining rivalry.
In the past, Boehly and Clearlake only spent £243m at Chelsea. It is understandable that Sterling may have felt confused during much of the previous season. He was brought in by Tuchel, who supposedly had a lot of influence over player recruitment, and was likely presented with a clear vision for his role in the club. This was the situation he had chosen for his prime years. However, just one month into the season, Tuchel was unexpectedly fired for reasons that have not been properly clarified.
It is likely that Sterling’s promised role did not include playing as a wing-back, especially with the increasing number of young wide forwards at Cobham. In the previous season, his pass completion rate in the Premier League dropped below 80% for the first time and he had his lowest success rate for take-ons. This may be attributed to the difficulty of keeping up with the constant arrivals and positions of players at Chelsea last season.
This issue is both a symptom and a contributing factor to Chelsea’s struggles. Players excel when they are in a system that works for them, with teammates supporting their weaknesses and enhancing their strengths, and when they feel at ease in their environment. It is understandable that Sterling may have felt unsettled during the turmoil of last season, which could explain the decrease in his passing and dribbling statistics as he was forced to take more risks due to a lack of support from his teammates.
Other things went wrong. Sterling’s house was burgled during the World Cup, his concerns for the wellbeing of his family causing him to fly home from Qatar, missing the last-16 win over Senegal. Although he was used as a late substitute in the quarter-final defeat by France, Sterling has not been picked for an England squad since.
During a match against City in January, he suffered an injury to his hamstring and was not able to fully regain his fitness before the season ended. There was a concern that if he lost his speed, he would face a fate similar to Michael Owen or Fernando Torres, who both struggled as top players in their late 20s. Additionally, he was constantly being moved around on the field and playing with different teammates.
The performance of Chelsea was disappointing, resulting in Sterling also being disappointing. This was a cycle where the unease of one team affected the other. Sterling, being a player who relies on confidence, was greatly impacted. The contrast between a confident Sterling, who scored 56 goals and provided numerous assists for City in the league from 2019-2022 and was also England’s top player in Euro 2020, and an uncertain Sterling from last season is significant.
After facing challenges in the previous season, Sterling is now considered one of the more experienced players at Chelsea, at 28 years old he is the third oldest member of the team after Thiago Silva and backup goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli. Despite previously appearing somewhat reserved or on the outskirts, he is now expected to take on a leadership role on the field.
This season, his performance has significantly improved. He made changes to his diet, including a period of following a vegan diet, in an effort to regain his agility. Additionally, he spent time training with a judo club during the summer, as seen in videos on social media where he is shown sprinting up hills. His ability to take on opponents has returned to the level it was during his time at Liverpool, before he was coached by Guardiola. He began the first six league games of the season playing on the right side (three games with a three-man defense and three with a four-man defense) and has since moved to the left after Cole Palmer joined the team.
His two-goal performance in the win against Luton at home is likely his strongest showing in the last couple of years. Although no one has stood out for the club this season, Sterling has been consistently impressive alongside Palmer and Conor Gallagher as one of the top three performers.
However, even though James Maddison was injured, he was once again left out of the England squad on Thursday. It seems that due to the many choices available in his position, he is currently on the periphery. For both Sterling and Chelsea, it will be a challenging journey to recover from the turbulence of the previous year.