So much has happened in the 15 months since American billionaire Todd Boehly and a consortium of investors bought Chelsea in May last year that it’s very easy to forget that Raheem Sterling was the first marquee signing of that new era.
The former Manchester City man was the first player in the door following the takeover, and his arrival was met with much head-nodding and hand-shaking. A highly decorated, experienced, and proven Premier League performer in the prime of his career. It made sense.
But few could have predicted just how chaotic 2022-23 would become for Chelsea. £600 million and three permanent managers later, they finished the season an astonishing 30 points worse off than 2021-22, with their total of 44 points their worst tally in any season since 1987-88 (42).
Sterling was one of 21 players Chelsea signed permanently last season, and although seven of those players were immediately sent out on loan, that type of anarchic environment – coupled with a strew of different managers – was not conducive to anyone having a standout season.
Sterling was one of them. The Englishman scored just nine times across 38 appearances in all competitions, dipping below the double-digit mark for goals for the first time in nine years.
A niggling hamstring injury suffered against Manchester City in the first game of 2023 that Sterling could not shake did not help things. Neither did his three different managers deploying him in wildly different positions on the pitch:
But what a difference a summer break – in which Sterling changed his diet and worked incredibly hard on a new off-season fitness regime – and a new manager in the dugout can make.
Sterling has been nothing short of sensational in Chelsea’s opening three games. He’s looked sharp, quick and threatening and has recaptured his electric acceleration. The fact he clocked a top speed of 34.2 kmph against Liverpool – the fastest speed any Chelsea player has reached this season – is indication that he is back to his physical best.
Rediscovering his confidence is something Sterling has credited Mauricio Pochettino with. Talking to Sky Sports after Chelsea’s 3-0 win against Luton on Friday, Chelsea’s player of the match said:
“I had a bit of frustration last season, I was always coming [deep] with my back to goal, and wasn’t given a chance to get towards the box. My feeling all last season was I was too deep and playing the ball to the full-backs.
“[I] had a simple conversation [with Pochettino]. He said: ‘Raheem, it doesn’t matter where you play, if you are dynamic and aggressive, no one can stop you. It doesn’t matter left, right, centre, just be aggressive with the ball.
“…I know exactly what he needs from me, and it is simple as that. I need to [receive] on the back foot, drive at players which is when I am most effective.”
While Sterling’s assertion that he passed to his full-back all the time isn’t totally accurate – he passed the ball to midfielders Enzo Fernández (44), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (40) and striker Kai Havertz (35) more than anyone else – his comment around receiving further away from goal was certainly true.
Last season, Sterling received 58.4% of his passes in the final third. This season, that’s jumped way up to 67.2%, a similar rate to out-and-out strikers like Eddie Nketiah (68.2%) and Erling Haaland (68.8%).
The graphic below comparing his touch locations this campaign versus last season paints a stark picture. Not only has Sterling got on the ball far more often, but he’s done so in more advanced areas, staying high and wide on the right in a bid to isolate his marker. It points to the stability that Pochettino has brought that he’s started Sterling on the right wing in all three games so far.
Staying more advanced has also helped Sterling get into the box more often. At a record rate, in fact. His 11.8 touches in the opposition box per game is the highest rate it’s ever been in his professional career.
While Chelsea have played just three games so far this season and dominated possession in each of them – their average possession of 69.1% is the highest of any team in the league thus far – what is indisputable is Sterling’s dynamism when he gets on the ball.
To borrow Sterling’s words, he is aggressive and constantly looking to drive at players with the ball at his feet. Through three games, the Chelsea winger has attempted more take-ons than any other player in the league (21), while only Wolves’ Matheus Nunes and Everton’s Lewis Dobbin can better his per-90 rate of 7.3. In fact, Sterling is currently taking on opposition players more frequently than in any other season in his career.
As his brilliant goal against Luton showed, watching Sterling in full flight is a glorious thing.
A benefit of Sterling staying high and wide is not just the fact he can take-on his full-back, but also that he can be a progressive outlet for Chelsea. He’s received 26 progressive passes this season – only teammate Nicolas Jackson and Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli have received more – with Malo Gusto feeding him from right wing-back or Fernández spraying the ball out wide. He’s been a particularly popular option for Fernández, who has passed the ball to Sterling more times than anyone else, with the Argentine regularly receiving from his defenders before turning and looking to find Sterling on the right.
From there Sterling can drag Chelsea up the pitch with his elite ball carrying. Only five players have carried the ball further than Sterling’s 456m this season and four of them are central defenders who typically topped that metric. (The other is Kaoru Mitoma.)
One of those defenders, Lewis Dunk, is the only player who has completed more carries that go 10m+ directly upfield than Sterling.
The winger’s map of long progressive carries below highlights the dangerous areas in which he’s able to pick up the ball at drive his team forward.
It says a lot about the current state of football fandom – one of snap reactions where everything is either “amazing” or “terrible” – that many people seemed to have written off Sterling as a player and forgotten just how good he is. His goals against Luton saw him score in the Premier League for a 12th successive season, and only five players have scored more league goals since his first strike in October 2012.
With 117 goals and 59 assists to his name, Sterling has 176 overall Premier League goal involvements, enough to see him rank 20th in the all-time Premier League charts. He’s scored more goals than Ian Wright and Didier Drogba and registered more assists than Paul Scholes. That is some company.
Aged just 28, there is every chance that Sterling can break into the top 10 for all-time Premier League goal involvements. Steven Gerrard (120 goals, 92 assists) currently holds 10th spot. Sterling’s averaged 15 goals and assists a season over the course of his career, so even three more seasons of average production will see him eclipse Gerrard’s overall record. There’s high chance we will look back on Sterling as an all-time Premier League great.
This is a young and inexperienced Chelsea squad that has been ravaged by injuries. Although he’s by no means in the twilight of his career, Sterling is one of the most senior players in Chelsea’s squad. Thiago Silva is the only outfielder who’s older than him. As Pochettino leads Chelsea into a brave new world, he will need brave new leaders to step up for him. The early signs are that Sterling is doing just that.