If the 1-1 draw against Liverpool on opening weekend of the new Premier League season was a tentative step forward for Chelsea, Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at the hands of West Ham was certainly a step backwards again. In Raheem Sterling’s performance, though, there was one positive for Mauricio Pochettino to take.
It’s still early days with Chelsea just two games into the 2023/24 Premier League campaign, but Sterling looks like his old self. Last season, the England international was a shadow of himself, but on the basis of his displays against Liverpool and West Ham Sterling has been revitalised over the summer.
Nobody completed more dribbles against West Ham on Sunday than Sterling (six). He was a constant threat with the ball at his feet and drew the foul that led to a penalty. No matter if West Ham got tight to him or gave him space, Sterling was able to get through and find pockets of space all over the pitch.
Chelsea looked to have pulled off a coup when they signed Sterling from Manchester City for just £50m. At that point, he was seen as one of the most reliable goal-scorers in the Premier League having scored 131 goals in 339 appearances for City. Sterling was expected to be the face of Chelsea’s new-look attack.
Under Thomas Tuchel, Graham Potter and Frank Lampard, though, Sterling played well within himself. It never felt like he had the space required to play at his best. Of course, Chelsea’s entire attacking line struggled last season, but Sterling had the ability to offer something more. While other forwards were moved on, everyone knew it was worth preserving with the England international.
“I think he’s an important player for us. He’s in our plan,” Pochettino said about Sterling not long after his appointment at Stamford Bridge. “He can provide to the team many different things. We are confident that we can get the best from him to help the team to achieve what we want.”
So far this season, Pochettino has set up his Chelsea attack with Nicolas Jackson as the number nine and two mobile forwards in behind the Senegalese striker. Against West Ham, Carney Chukwuemeka and Sterling were those two forwards, with both players given the freedom to drift and find space in the wide areas.
Ben Chilwell and Malo Gusto gave Chelsea width as the wing backs in a 3-4-2-1 formation with the latter frequently combining with Sterling and creating passing triangles with Enzo Fernandez and Conor Gallagher. Even in defeat, there were signs of the relationships strengthening around Sterling in the Chelsea forward line.
Chelsea are a work-in-progress. They have done a good job of clearing the decks following last season with the likes of Kai Havertz, Mason Mount, Kalidou Koulibaly, Edouard Mendy, Mateo Kovacic and others moved on. Pochettino has also started the process of giving Chelsea a new identity on the pitch.
The average age of Chelsea’s squad has been lowered with Pochettino keen to turn the Blues into a more energetic, nimble team. Levi Colwill has been made a first team figure with Chukwuemeka, Noni Madueke and Mason Burstow all featuring for Chelsea in the early stages of this season. The plan is starting to emerge.
At 28, Sterling is the elder statesman of the Chelsea squad and he is setting an example for everyone around him. Pochettino is still figuring some things out and working out the best approach for his players, but Sterling’s performances bode well. He’s clearly more comfortable at Stamford Bridge now than at any other time over the last 12 months.