Saturday, 14 June 2014

a perfect 10?

If Raheem Sterling is starting in the No. 10 role for England tonight – behind Sturridge in the middle of the attacking three – then that is a startlingly bold move coming from Roy Hodgson. It's one I would never have predicted given his immediate attempt on starting the job to impose the workmanlike, safety-first 4-4-2 that he'd played throughout his career.

Hodgson has already seen Sterling audition for the role in the Premier League with Liverpool – the credit for imagining Sterling as a 10 in the first place has to go to Brendan Rodgers. In pure footballing terms, it makes obvious sense: Sterling is skilful, fast, incredibly hard to dispossess (especially given his size), tactically and positionally intelligent, and while not purely two-footed when the ball comes into him defenders have to stop for a fraction of a second because he's capable of spinning off them either left or right. He's also amazingly cold-blooded for his age: just think of that goal against Man City, putting his foot on the ball and waiting for Kompany and Hart to slide out of his way.

But I was still surprised when I first saw Sterling at the tip of Liverpool's midfield diamond, because he's the kind of player that 99% of the time in British football gets put wide early on in their career and stays there: fast, tricky, good finisher. And black.

Maybe there isn't latent stereotyping at work in football, maybe creative black players are trusted as central playmaker all the time. Maybe I'm missing someone and Sterling isn't the first black No 10 to play for England? (NB John Barnes was shunted left or up front).

I hope he plays as he does for Liverpool – at least reminds Pirlo that he's thirty-five. Sterling will be in a different system to Liverpool against Italy, with two (not three) midfielders behind him, and one (not two) strikers moving ahead of him, creating space and options. But however he plays there is something quietly seismic here: Wayne Rooney pushed left so Sterling can debut in this role in England's first World Cup group game. Rooney's been lined up for this role in behind Sturridge for months. No-one in the press will miss that. Will they notice the other ground he's breaking? Hopefully, and maybe the coaching profession will too.

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