Gareth Southgate has praised Raheem Sterling’s ability to overcome adversity and believes that England suffered when the forward missed the previous two camps.
Sterling is under pressure after an indifferent spell with Manchester City and his place in England’s starting XI is under threat because of some fierce competition in attacking midfield. Southgate, whose side continue their World Cup qualifying campaign away to Albania on Sunday, is not short of possible replacements. Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount, Bukayo Saka, Jesse Lingard and Jadon Sancho are all hoping to impress before Euro 2020.
Yet while England have enviable options up front, Southgate indicated that he will stick by his old favourites before facing Albania. The 50-year-old was quick to talk up Sterling and Marcus Rashford, who will miss the trip to Albania and Wednesday’s home game against Poland. Southgate believes that no defence will relish marking Sterling, who missed several chances before scoring England’s third in their 5-0 win over San Marino on Thursday, and expressed admiration for the 26-year-old’s desire to succeed.
“He’s a very important player,” Southgate said. “We know that when opponents are looking at our team Raheem is one of the players that they’ll be looking at and worried about. He’s got the bit between his teeth. He wants to play well for England.
“In September after a week’s holiday, his desire to win and his will to win the game in Iceland when we went down to 10 men, it was phenomenal just to see that drive and that passion. That’s a big part of Raheem’s game. He is a driven player and whenever there’s a challenge in front of him he wants to step up and take that on. He is determined to do well. He wants to have a big summer with us. He’s a crucial part of us doing well.”
Southgate, who will continue with a 4-3-3 system against Albania, has faced repeated calls to find room in his side for Foden, Mount and Grealish. Yet the manager needs to find the right balance and feels that England benefit from the speed, directness and goal threat provided by Sterling and Rashford.
England struggled when the duo were unavailable for their Nations League games in October and November. Disappointing results against Belgium and Denmark led them to miss out on the tournament’s final phase and Southgate felt the performances underlined their importance,
“It wasn’t underestimated by us,” Southgate said. “Of course, you need attacking players who can unlock defences and who can creatively take players out of the game. But you also need people to finish chances. We missed both their speed and their finishing power in the autumn.”
Southgate, who could bring in Declan Rice, Luke Shaw, Harry Maguire, Foden and Harry Kane against Albania, is without his No 1 goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford.
However, he does not believe there is any pressure on Burnley’s Nick Pope, who had a quiet evening against San Marino, to perform any heroics while he deputises for Pickford.
“I don’t think Nick has to do anything special,” he said. “Nick’s just got to approach the games as he approaches every match day for his club. He’s a very consistent performer with a really calm temperament.
“One of the most important things when you have a night like the other night is don’t go looking for work as a goalkeeper. Just be content. If it’s a day when you get a clean sheet without having to do very much, you bag that and move on to the next one.
“What we don’t need are people in goal who need to grab the attention and need to be seen to be doing something. That’s when you force things and you can create errors. I thought he went about that in the correct manner. In the next couple of games he will be tested more, for certain and he’s more than up to the task.”