When Chelsea completed the signing of Raheem Sterling in July, there was genuine excitement amongst the club’s supporters.
The Blues had just brought in a serial winner, who played a huge part in Manchester City’s recent domination of English football. In truth, when reflecting on his start at Chelsea, it couldn’t have gone too much better in the circumstances.
Sterling has scored four times while providing one assist in eight matches for Chelsea in all competitions this season. The 27-year-old is the club’s top scorer in what has been a turbulent start to the season.
Thomas Tuchel was the man who brought Sterling to Stamford Bridge but the German has now left his role. Graham Potter is the man who took over from Tuchel and in his first match in charge, he made a slightly surprising decision regarding Sterling.
An hour before kick-off in the match with Red Bull Salzburg almost a fortnight ago, the team was released to the public. If you were active on Twitter at the time, your timeline may have been clogged up with people asking questions over the Chelsea XI. Nobody was quite sure what was going on.
People assumed it would be a three-back formation, given Potter’s time at Brighton and the personnel in the line-up, but nobody was sure who the left wing-back was going to be. The options, really, were Sterling and perhaps Mason Mount.
Sterling was the man who lined up on the left-hand side in what looked to be a wing-back role. Apart from it wasn’t. Not really, anyway. It was essentially a left winger role – somewhere he played countless times during his Man City career. As Potter explains below, Sterling was not asked to defend as much as you’d assume a wing-back would.
“It was a back-three as far as I was concerned with Reece [James] and Raheem giving us the width,” the Chelsea head coach said. “Salzburg are very strong in the middle with their 4-3-1-2, so it’s not easy to play through the middle of the pitch. We wanted to get some dangerous width and Reece and Raheem were that.
“They were more full-backs in the lateral positions and then midfield players. I thought Raheem got into some good situations and Reece as well down that side.”
When asked if playing Sterling as a wing-back creates a risk for Chelsea, Potter replied: “Well, there is that possibility, but you have to organise around that as you don’t want Raheem really defending in his box too often, and I don’t think he did. I think Marc Cucurella managed the situation quite well. I cannot remember too many opportunities they had down that side.
“Whatever you do, there’s always a plus and a minus, but we were at home, and we wanted to be on the front foot and get some attacking ideas in those positions. Raheem is really good at attacking a backline and scored a fantastic goal.
“I thought he was really good in the game. Reece balances it off a little bit and we can still defend in a four if we need to, so that was the thinking.”
Sterling’s attacking freedom was not limited despite essentially being a wing-back. We saw on many occasions he can still be the dangerous attacking option while playing wide on the left-hand side. Cucurella often drifted to wider positions and was almost Sterling’s back-up on the left.
The England international scored Chelsea’s only goal of the game where he found himself with acres of space in the box. That’s not to say that when Ben Chilwell or Cucurella play as wing-back they don’t get into the box – see West Ham United with Chilwell, for example – because they do. It’s how often Sterling found himself in particularly dangerous positions.
It showed the tactical flexibility and – although Chelsea ended up drawing the game 1-1 – how intelligent Potter is when it comes to the tactical side of the game. It’s a position we could see Sterling used in more, especially against sides where Chelsea are likely to have more of the ball.