Raheem Sterling at Chelsea: A marquee signing incapable of living up to an unrealistic billing – The Athletic

Liam TwomeyMar 20, 2024

The ball had not even landed yet in the upper tier of the Matthew Harding Stand when the boos began to rain down.

Raheem Sterling stood still and raised his hands to cover his mouth and nose, trying to process how his Roberto Carlos-style run-up had resulted in a free-kick attempt more akin to a failed rugby union conversion. Patson Daka, jogging upfield having been in the Leicester City wall, even offered a consoling ruffle of his opponent’s head as he went past.

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Then, as Sterling slowly turned away, the chant went up from the Chelsea supporters behind him.

“Get him off! Get him off! Get him off!”

It was one of those rare moments on a football pitch where high comedy meets excruciating embarrassment, an extinction-level event for the confidence of some players. Fernando Torres experienced something similar at Old Trafford in September 2011, contriving to miss an open goal in front of a gleeful Stretford End after brilliantly rounding David de Gea.

That day, however, Torres only had to endure the taunts of rival supporters. Chelsea fans overwhelmingly stuck with him, sympathetic to his plight and appreciative of his effort. Sterling, despite belonging in the same bracket of disappointing marquee signings, has always been treated differently by a vocal section of the club’s hardcore support.

Sterling departs the fray against Leicester City (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

A perception has grown among his fiercest critics at Stamford Bridge that Sterling is a selfish player, putting his success ahead of the team’s best interests. His decision to ask Cole Palmer to hand over penalty duties against Leicester City was widely interpreted as proof, adding to a body of evidence that also includes him shooting rather than squaring to Palmer or Nicolas Jackson when through on goal in Chelsea’s 2-1 loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux in December.

But another interpretation makes more sense within the context of Sterling’s career as a whole: that he is tying himself in knots trying to live up to his own expectations and those of everyone around him.

Hype has followed Sterling since the start of his football journey; a gift and a curse.

The subject of interest from England’s top clubs before signing for Liverpool at 15, his thrilling breakthrough to become a Premier League regular and senior England international at 17 marked him out as the Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney of his generation.

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That almost impossible standard became even more daunting when he moved from Liverpool to Manchester City in 2015 for an initial £44million ($55.9m) fee that made him the most expensive English player ever at the time, simultaneously branded a money-grabbing mercenary before his 21st birthday and the man to power a golden era at the Etihad Stadium.

In reality, he was neither, but Sterling was so desperate to succeed after an underwhelming first two seasons at City that he reinvented his game under Pep Guardiola, transforming from a direct wing-hugging dribbler into an expert finisher of moves in the penalty area. That change also helped him escape the unwanted status of designated scapegoat for England’s tournament failures, instead blossoming into one of Gareth Southgate’s most reliable performers.

Co-owners Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali welcome Sterling to Chelsea at Dodger Stadium (Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

Announcing his arrival at Chelsea in the summer of 2022, co-owner Todd Boehly described Sterling as a “world-class talent”. The forward spoke sincerely about his ambition to win the Ballon d’Or — words that seemed fanciful at the time and now appear utterly ludicrous, but are also entirely consistent with the mindset that has taken him to this point.

Sterling was football’s equivalent of a Hollywood child star, growing up publicly in a storm of often unfair criticism and, at times, disgraceful media coverage while attempting to live up to the excitement sparked by his prodigious emergence. Rather than going off the rails, he doubled down on his professionalism and, along the way, held up a vital mirror to the racially charged manner in which some UK newspapers discussed him and other young black footballers.

That is quite a legacy to add to what Chelsea head coach Mauricio Pochettino justifiably describes as “an unbelievable CV”: four Premier League titles, 10 major club trophies overall and 20 goals in 82 England appearances. Sterling does not turn 30 until December, yet Rooney is the only forward to have played more than his 27,896 minutes in the Premier League.

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The problem for Sterling and everyone else invested in his success is that he has never been a Ballon d’Or-level performer. He lacks the metronomic precision and production of the very best and the unfortunate tendency of his generally excellent technique to desert him at key moments can make him a uniquely maddening watch.

Guardiola’s system elevated Sterling to career-best heights, but he was never as integral to its success as some of his more celebrated City team-mates. That is why he lost his place as a regular starter a year before leaving for Chelsea and why the Premier League champions were ultimately fine with selling him to an ostensible rival two years ago.

Sterling and Riyad Mahrez celebrate winning the Premier League in 2022 (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Chelsea viewed him very differently.

In the eyes of Thomas Tuchel, Sterling was the versatile scoring threat he needed to transform an underperforming attack. To the owners, he was a marquee name who could be unveiled with a glitzy Beverly Hills photoshoot and justifiably paid at the level of a Premier League superstar. This fundamental misidentification of what Sterling was might have doomed his Chelsea chapter at its conception.

His huge contract, which pays him at a comparable level to Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne and contains no clauses to lower his salary outside of European competition, informs a lot of the frustration that comes his way from inside and outside the club. It is telling that he was the one singled out for motivation by Boehly during the American’s ill-advised visit to Stamford Bridge’s home dressing room after the defeat against Brighton & Hove Albion in April.

None of this is Sterling’s fault and there is no suggestion that securing such a lucrative five-year deal has prompted him to take his foot off the gas. On the contrary, he spent much of last summer working with Chelsea staff to re-think his approach to diet and nutrition and threw himself into extra conditioning work to ensure he would be in peak shape for the new season, which he began impressively under Pochettino.

“I want to get back to being obsessed with football and nothing else,” he said in August. “Top performances, goals and assists. A lot has happened in my career. I have had a new challenge, which has been difficult. Your head can become blurry, but my love for football is too much and I am too young to let my career fizzle out.

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“I need to maintain the standards I have set myself and keep going. I have the desire and hunger to do that.”

Sterling’s production since that pledge has fallen short of his and Chelsea’s standards. His goal against City at the Etihad Stadium last month was only his second in 2024 and ended a three-month scoring drought in the Premier League. He has not added to it in the five matches across all competitions that followed.

Given the huge mileage of his career, Sterling’s slump has fuelled suggestions that he has entered his decline phase. In terms of playing style at Chelsea, he has reverted more to what he was at Liverpool than what he became at City; he ranks third in the Premier League for dribbles attempted per 90 minutes in 2024-24, but his success rate is the lowest in the top 10.

Sterling is a low-efficiency dribbler

Player   Dribbles/90   Dribble success (%)  
Jérémy Doku 9.3 51.60%
Mohammed Kudus 7.5 55%
Raheem Sterling 6 33.30%
Kaoru Mitoma 5.7 41.50%
Chiedozie Ogbene 5.5 50.90%
Leon Bailey 5.4 48.30%
Gabriel Martinelli 5.4 34.60%
Pedro Neto 5.3 42%
Simon Adingra 5.2 41%
Matheus Cunha 5.1 47.30%

Sterling’s high volume, low efficiency dribbling this season also compares unfavourably with all of his final five seasons working with Guardiola at City.

Sterling’s dribble efficiency has dipped

Season   Dribbles/90   Dribble success (%)  
2017-18 4.2 53.80%
2018-19 4.9 53.90%
2019-20 3.6 52.30%
2020-21 4.3 54.10%
2021-22 4.8 47.30%
2022-23 4.4 41.90%
2023-24 6 33.30%

The bad moments are beginning to outnumber the good ones and, as has so often been the case in Sterling’s career, in his bad moments for Chelsea he is discovering that he has very little credit in the bank with many of his own supporters.

History suggests that Sterling will not give up.

For all his flaws, it is hard to find a more mentally resilient footballer — a quality underlined again by the run and inviting low cross that gave Palmer a tap-in against Leicester, following hot on the heels of his limp penalty and gilt-edged one-on-one miss in a torrid first half. He does not hide, even if that means enduring moments like his unforgettable second-half free kick.

Sterling scuffs his penalty straight at Jakub Stolarczyk (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

That attitude is one of the things that endears him to his team-mates, who notably rushed to issue supportive comments under his apologetic Instagram post after the Leicester game.

Sterling was never a candidate for the Chelsea captaincy, but he is viewed as a big brother by many of the club’s younger attackers; an example to follow in terms of his application.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Raheem Sterling x :innocent: (@sterling7)

Receiving such love from any of the supporters he has represented seems an unlikely prospect.

Liverpool will never forgive him for leaving. The bulk of the adulation at City is reserved for the club’s unequivocal modern club legends: Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and De Bruyne. England supporters often seemed more comfortable abusing than embracing him. All three responded to his absence by quickly finding newer, shinier heroes.

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Then there is this Chelsea chapter, which grows unhappier by the month.

Sterling is not capable of living up to the initial billing. For many in the stands, his face does not fit this young team and his contract — which runs until June 2027 — is an expensive millstone, the legacy of a chaotic first transfer window before Boehly and Clearlake Capital implemented their youth strategy and drive to lower the wage bill.

On the current direction of travel, it would be a sad end to a highly successful and admirable career, but perhaps the reaction to Sterling’s eventual substitution against Leicester hints at the only workable way forward: applause drowning out the boos, reciprocated by the man himself.

In the absence of love, respect will do.

(Top photo: Jacques Feeney/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

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Liam is a Staff Writer for The Athletic, covering Chelsea. He previously worked for Goal covering the Premier League before becoming the Chelsea correspondent for ESPN in 2015, witnessing the unravelling of Jose Mourinho, the rise and fall of Antonio Conte, the brilliance of Eden Hazard and the madness of Diego Costa. He has also contributed to The Independent and ITV Sport. Follow Liam on Twitter @liam_twomey

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