Raheem Sterling has always been there for Gareth Southgate’s England. Never mind your 55-player World Cup longlist, the winger has always been top five and probably higher than that.
He was there at the 2018 World Cup and during Euro 2020, starting all the key matches and rarely letting his country down.
Of the 60 occasions Sterling has been called up by Southgate, he has started 48 games and come off the bench in a further four. He’s always been one of the first names pencilled onto the teamsheet.
Summer signing Raheem Sterling has looked a little out of sorts for Chelsea in recent weeks
The England winger endured another frustrating evening as Chelsea drew with Man United
But as thoughts begin to drift away from the domestic season and towards the World Cup in Qatar, Sterling is struggling to deliver his best for Chelsea at a bad time.
It was always going to be a gamble ending a very successful spell at Manchester City for a new challenge at Stamford Bridge, especially with a £50million transfer fee to justify and in a World Cup year.
And while Sterling isn’t playing terribly, he has been producing only six or seven-out-of-10 displays lately rather than his absolute best.
The £300,000-a-week star hasn’t scored since Graham Potter’s first game in charge, the 1-1 draw with Red Bull Salzburg in the Champions League on September 14.
In the Premier League, you must go back to August 30 at Southampton, when Thomas Tuchel was still in the dugout.
Not that Sterling’s game exclusively revolves around scoring but he also lacked his natural confidence to take on opponents during Chelsea’s draw with Manchester United on Saturday night.
England boss Gareth Southgate is loyal to Sterling but he could do with an uptick in his form
Sterling takes on Thilo Kehrer during England’s UEFA Nations League draw with Germany
It was an evening of frustration for the winger, whose main contribution was going down in the United box in an unsuccessful attempt to win a penalty, and Potter eventually took him off for Armando Broja on 79 minutes.
It wouldn’t have helped Sterling’s mood that Broja duly did win a penalty when he was wrestled to the floor by Scott McTominay.
Afterwards, Potter refused to single him out, instead suggesting his other attackers need to provide the England man with better service.
But it will concern Sterling that competitors for his England place are enjoying far better seasons and coming into decent form ahead of the World Cup.
Bukayo Saka continues to impress in a rejuvenated Arsenal team that is top of the table, Phil Foden has scored seven goals already for Man City, while Marcus Rashford looked far the more likely to find the net for United on Saturday.
Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka (right) is among those England attackers currently in better form
Rashford has looked in sharper form of late for Man United but couldn’t score on Saturday
Jack Grealish, Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho are other options to accompany Harry Kane in attack.
Indeed, it’s the one part of the pitch where Southgate doesn’t have any worries over either quantity or quality of players.
The drop-off in form isn’t all Sterling’s fault. It was Tuchel who signed him over the summer, who persuaded a man with four Premier League titles and six domestic cups on his CV that the next phase of his career was away from the Etihad Stadium.
But having spent pre-season getting attuned to the German’s way of playing, Tuchel was fired within a few games of the real action getting underway.
Potter has come in and clearly views Sterling’s versatility as a key strength, leaving the player entirely uncertain of his true role for Chelsea.
Tuchel’s successor Graham Potter has played Sterling in several different positions so far
Premier League unless stated
Tuesday Red Bull Salzburg (A)
Saturday Brighton (A)
November 2 Dinamo Zagreb (H)
November 6 Arsenal (H)
November 9 Manchester City (A)
Carabao Cup third round
November 12 Newcastle United (A)
He’s been deployed on the left side, the right side, as a narrow attacking midfielder and as a forward alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang against AC Milan in Europe.
Sterling would be forgiven if his head’s in something of a spin. Clearly knowing what your role is benefits any footballer but Potter hasn’t quite worked that out yet.
‘He’s got the flexibility, ability and quality to play in several positions,’ Potter said on Saturday night. ‘It’s not straightforward with losing the players we have [to injuries].
‘So you’re constantly trying to find the right balance, and find the right solutions. But he can help us in a number of positions.’
It’s something of a double-edged compliment and it would be handy if Sterling finds a goal or two in the games coming up before England jet off to Qatar.
They have their return match with Red Bull Salzburg in the Champions League on Tuesday night before heading to Potter’s old club Brighton on Saturday.
Sterling is upended by Manchester United defender Lisandro Martinez in Saturday’s game
Southgate is incredibly loyal to players who haven’t let him down in an England shirt and Sterling shouldn’t sweat over his place yet.
Sterling played in five of England’s six Nations League games and captained the side in the home match with Italy that was played behind closed doors.
But with only a short run-up before the Three Lions take on Iran in their first group game on November 21, it’s far from ideal that one of Southgate’s most trusted players isn’t at his best.
It would be unfair on England’s other talented attackers, however, for Sterling to hog a place in the team when more in-form options are available.