It always seemed like a slightly odd transfer, and Raheem Sterling and Chelsea isn’t working out. So where next if he can’t make it work at Stamford Bridge?
The January transfer window has brought about a fresh round of Chelsea’s often scattergun-looking transfer policy, and it’s likely that there will be departures as well as arrivals. With this being the first transfer window for embattled manager Graham Potter, these changes might be substantial.
The benefit of hindsight has offered the perspective that there was much wrong with their summer transfer activity, which assembled an unbalanced combination of players who simply didn’t seem to even complement each other, never mind being able to mesh together as a properly functioning team.
And caught up in the middle of this mess is Raheem Sterling. It seems fair to say that Sterling’s move from Manchester City to Chelsea has not beeen conspicuously successful. He’s scored four goals in the Premier League and two in the Champions League – not an especially impressive return on 21 appearances, all the more so when we factor in that three of those four league goals were scored before the end of August.
But the issue with Sterling is broader than can be summed up by the goals scored column. He was signed for a different Chelsea manager, and the club didn’t seem certain of why they were buying him even then. As Potter has grappled with getting a consistent team in the face of a fairly horrendous injury list, Sterling has been out on the wing, carrying the body language of someone who realises they’ve made a mistake.
It’s worth taking into account just how turbulent Chelsea’s year has been. Twelve months ago, they had a different owner, a different manager and quite a few different players. The abrupt departure of Roman Abramovich was an upheaval. The time when Chelsea were operating under a government license was an upheaval. The sale of the club was an upheaval. The arrival of ten new players during the summer and a total of 29 (!) leaving was an upheaval.
The season started. The departure of Thomas Tuchel after six games of the league campaign was an upheaval. Integrating Potter and his pilfered-from-Brighton backroom staff was an upheaval. The rapidly escalating injury disaster was and remains an upheaval. And everything that’s happened since the end of May has been under the watch of a new group of owners led by a man with no previous experience of running a Premier League football club.
The circumstances under which Sterling arrived at Stamford Bridge were hardly happy either. In August, he told Sky Sports that he felt as though he was fighting “a battle he could never win” to play consistently under Pep Guardiola and that “it was a shame to see how it ended”. None of this sounds like Sterling was in the right mindset for a high-profile transfer where expectation levels would be sky-high. Along with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a signing who only made sense if working alongside Tuchel (who was sacked five days after Auba arrived), things not working out is hardly a surprise.
All of which means that Sterling has entered 2023 in a position he probably never expected to find himself. Chelsea may well want him to move on in the January transfer window to free up space on their squad list, and considering the extent to which Sterling’s time at Stamford Bridge has deteriorated, it may well be in his best interests too. The signing of Mykhaylo Mudryk, another winger, certainly sounds like a threat to his place in the first team.
But none of this is straightforward. Sterling is now 28 years old, and while he can afford one bad transfer decision, he might not be able to afford two. There have been rumours of interest from several clubs, and for now that still includes the elite. Real Madrid are understood to be interested, as are Juventus.
Either club could chew him up and spit him out. Real Madrid is a club at which expectation levels couldn’t be higher, and although Carlo Ancelotti is keen on taking him to the Bernabeu, Sterling would also have to impress a fanbase with the loftiest expectations in the game, off the back of a disappointing first half to this season in the Premier League.
Juventus are third in Serie A, but the rumours of financial irregularity and a recent history of ending up short of the targets they’d set themselves makes this a risky move.
Real would be the move that makes more sense, but it seems doubtful either club would be pushing hard to finalise that transfer this month. Sterling limped off with an injury just five minutes into Chelsea’s home defeat against Manchester City amd he will be missing for at least two further weeks; the aim is to get him back in time for the Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund on February 15.
The timing of this injury probably couldn’t be less fortuitous. A move away from Stamford Bridge this month was always unlikely, but those chances reduce considerably being out, and it also robs him of the opportunity to prove himself in the first team before the new £88m winger gets settled.
There is a way in which this works out. Sterling was always impressive as an impact substitute for Manchester City. Perhaps something approaching that could be recreated over the course of the second half of the season. But for a player at the prime age of their career, it’s unlikely that the possibility of spending half a season on the bench would be very appealing.
All of this means Sterling is at a fork in the road. At 28 years old, his options are only likely to narrow in the future and while he might be able to write this off as a situation that was beyond his control – Chelsea gonna Chelsea, and all that – should his next move go wrong, it might prove much more difficult to see a way back to the top for him. While a move abroad might well suit him, picking the right club from those who are interested is critical.
Sterling made a bad decision to go to Chelsea when he left Manchester City. He might not be able to afford another one.
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