Raheem Sterling may be ‘tired’ but he still finds time to stretch legs

Sterling’s impact off the bench against Estonia shows how much Roy Hodgson now relies on this rare talent
Estonia 0-1 England
England fail to show killer instinct

Everybody likes a little bit of straight-talking from an England manager: some honesty, a little urbane perspective. But you can also have too much perspective and from the moment Roy Hodgson said on live TV shortly before kick-off that Raheem Sterling would not be starting at the Lillekula Stadium because he was “tired” it seemed likely England’s manager had come out with something that would be spun into another fist-gnawingly unnecessary gaffe.

“Raheem was complaining a little about being tired and was not at his best,” Hodgson said, and in fairness there is no suggestion here that Sterling asked not to play, simply that he admitted to some fatigue. Sterling is 19 years old and has played a match every four to five days since mid-August. He probably does feel a bit tired. But no good could possibly come of Hodgson saying as much in public and England’s manager will surely be grateful for Sterling’s impact when he did come on two thirds of the way through what was shaping up to be a slightly frantic display against weak opposition who lost their best defender, Ragnar Klavan, to a second yellow card early in the second half.

Sterling it was who drew the foul that led to Wayne Rooney’s goal in a hard-fought 1-0 victory. By the end he even looked England’s brightest creative attacker. Perhaps –– who knows? – this was even a masterstroke from England’s manager, a wily piece of provocation to his teenage No10. It seems, however, unlikely in the circumstances. And yet for all the likely fuss, dropping Sterling to the bench still seemed like a timely move for a young player who has been asked not just to settle into this chop-and-change England team but to drive its creative aspirations for the past six months.

Indeed, even without Sterling this was the least experienced England first- choice midfield in recent memory, a callow collection of half-finished internationals still waiting for the great leap forward. On a chilly night at this low-slung, intimate aircraft hanger of a stadium, Adam Lallana started at the tip of England’s reconfigured diamond. Lallana has looked in glimpses a natural in an England shirt, a serene, beautifully balanced two footed ball-player, even if here he was crowded a little by England’s own narrowness.

Either way he now has one assist and no goals so far in 11 matches, while an England midfield four of Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson and Fabian Delph has no goals and two career assists in a combined 58 appearances. Little wonder England have played Sterling so regularly. Little wonder, perhaps, he should also feel the strain.

Lallana started well enough in his floating role, but it was clear from the start this was going to be a struggle on a tight, choppy pitch. At times Lallana looked like a man playing a caffeine-crazed game of five-a-side, constantly whirling about in search of space between the blue shirts, but twice drifting inside past Artur Pikk with that familiar lazy, quick-footed grace.

Estonia are a weak footballing nation at the best of times, and this is not the best of times. An injury-wracked team, which drew 1-1 with Gibraltar in this stadium this year, took on England with a defence cobbled together from scraps. There was a genuine weakness here that England probed at throughout a first half that also demonstrated their own obvious flaw in this formation, the lack of creativity out wide, with Leighton Baines the only player on either flank with genuine attacking thrust. And so with 64 minutes gone and the game scoreless: enter the somnolent one. Sterling’s introduction as England’s second substitute shifted Lallana to the right in place of Henderson and they instantly looked better as Estonia tired and spaces opened up.

Ten minutes after coming on, Sterling collapsed abruptly in possession near goal. Was it exhaustion? Was it a penalty? In fact it was a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area – and, as it turned out, a goal. Perhaps Sergei Pareiko should have saved Wayne Rooney’s kick, but it was well hit, dipped over the wall and ended up in the corner of the net, to England’s great relief. Either way, England were rescued by their captain’s precision and Hodgson’s decisive substitution.

It is to be hoped the fall-out from Sterling’s slumbers will be mild, not least because there is a wider point here about English football’s sweating of its young talent. In an ideal world, or simply a stronger group of players, Sterling might have been allowed to bloom more slowly than he has, drip-fed into this team rather than plonked right in the middle of things.

It is worth remembering that this time last year he was in and out at Liverpool, had scored just five career goals and only demonstrated the real extent of his talent in the season’s endgame. Such is England’s need, and so alluring Sterling’s blend of speed and intelligence, that he has instead been pretty much chucked in without a second thought, a tyro No10 asked to drive the team’s attack through a World Cup and Euro qualification.

The wider question is, as ever: are we watching a rare talent being moulded and coaxed to its full potential; or a young player being worn down, his light dulled by the unusual pressures of playing so often, and with such responsibility, for club and country? Sterling was bright enough here to suggest that, even handled half-right, and even with a little teenage lassitude to lose, he is surely too good not to succeed in the end.