AndEngland were well on their way to defeat in Stockholm by the time Zlatan Ibrahimovic launched himself into the air and prepared to embarrass Joe Hart. An experimental lineup had collapsed at the end of a ramshackle friendly with Sweden and, for all the fanfare over Steven Gerrard winning his 100th cap, the only thing anyone wanted to talk about after the game was the moment when Ibrahimovic made it 4-2 with a preposterous overhead kick in the 90th minute.
Ten years on, the ponytailed striker’s chutzpah still inspires awe. Ibrahimovic had already scored a brilliant hat-trick, but his fourth goal from him was the pick of the lot. It left Hart red-faced and, if there was a consolation for England, at least Sweden’s biggest star had dragged the attention away from their struggles.
This was a very different England side to the one that will face Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium on Monday. They were coached by Roy Hodgson, captained by Gerrard and bruised after a drab performance at Euro 2012. Gary Cahill, who announced his retirement this past week, was in central defense and a 31-year-old Leon Osman was one of six debutants. Rejuvenation was the focus for Hodgson. He took the opportunity to have a first look at Steven Caulker, Carl Jenkinson and Ryan Shawcross; he even dipped into the Championship, calling up Wilfried Zaha and bringing the Crystal Palace youngster off the bench with five minutes left.
Of course, Zaha ended up switching his allegiance to Ivory Coast. The player he came on for against Sweden, though, has become part of the furniture. Last Monday marked the 10th anniversary of Raheem Sterling’s England debut and, even though his form for Chelsea is a concern, it would represent a major surprise if he does not start against Iran.
The England shirt no longer weighs heavily on Sterling. This is the 27-year-old’s fifth international tournament, underlining his importance to him to the side, and it is startling to consider how much has changed in the last decade. To put it into context, Gareth Southgate was working on the Sweden game as a pundit for ITV. Sterling was 17 and had just broken into the Liverpool side. He was exciting but raw and there were times when he frustrated fans with his indecisiveness about him in the final third.
The mind goes back to Sterling facing Italy in England’s opening game at the 2014 World Cup and letting fly from long range early on. Everyone watching on television saw the net ripple and thought it was in; in reality the ball had flashed past the left post, merely brushing the side-netting, and England would go out before the group stage was over.
That near miss felt symbolic for Sterling. There was a time when he dreaded international duty. He received heavy criticism after England lost to Iceland at Euro 2016 and it was not long before he was being targeted with racial abuse.
Yet adversity brought out the best in Sterling. Off the pitch, he has become a pioneering voice in the fight against discrimination. Sterling, who will win his 80th cap against Iran, is a leader. He looks after young players when they enter the England setup. He is the most-capped player in this squad – Harry Kane is second on 75, Jordan Henderson and Kyle Walker are joint third on 70 – and there is no bigger fan of him than Southgate, who tends to respond to criticism of Sterling by arguing that none of the other attacking midfielders at his disposal can match his goal threat.
Still Sterling, who has 19 goals for England, is in danger of losing his place as an automatic starter. He was England’s best attacker during their run to the final of Euro 2020, troubling opponents with his pace and scoring three goals. He is devastating when in the mood. His runs in behind keep defenders guessing and England tend to be at their best when Kane is releasing Sterling with clever through balls.
However the question is whether opponents have grown wise to that line of attack. True, nimble creators such as Mason Mount, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish are likely to play in front of defences. They like the ball to feet, whereas Sterling runs in behind. For Southgate, the risk of dropping Sterling is that England find themselves without enough pace and get bogged down.
The counter is that Sterling’s recent performances for club and country have been underwhelming. Gone is the level that made his partnership with Kane crucial to England picking Spain off on the break in October 2018 and earning one of the best wins of the Southgate was. Sterling is in a rut. He decided to leave Manchester City in the summer after losing his place as a regular in Pep Guardiola’s side, but he is yet to hit his stride at Chelsea. The sacking of Thomas Tuchel has changed things for Sterling. Tuchel wanted him to be the main man; Graham Potter has often used the former City winger as an auxiliary wing-back and the results have been unconvincing. One goal in his last 10 games for Chelsea speaks volumes.
It feels unsustainable. Southgate has backed Sterling, but he is goalless in his last five internationals for England and was poor against Italy in September. At some point Southgate will have to look elsewhere. Bukayo Saka has been in outstanding form for Arsenal. A rejuvenated Marcus Rashford is an obvious alternative on the left. Foden, Mount and Grealish are also pushing for starts, though James Maddison’s knee injury is likely to keep him out against Iran.
Equally Sterling, whose England record is worthy of more respect, has seen it all before. He was pilloried after Euro 2016 but responded by helping England reach the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. His mentality is rock solid. Sterling will remember how there were similar doubts over his place before the Euros and his response was to score the winner when England beat Croatia in their opening game. Something similar against Iran would not go amiss.