As Chelsea prepare to continue their lavish spending in the final weeks of the window, Thomas Tuchel will hope to see major signs on Sunday that his most pivotal move of the window has already been made. Raheem Sterling gets his first taste of a derby in blue against a resurgent Tottenham in what has become an underrated fixture in terms of genuine needle between the sides and sets of supporters. Elevated in levels of animosity over the last decade amid Spurs’ rise to prominence, it is the perfect opportunity to make a statement with optimism surrounding both clubs this season.
Sterling is familiar with games of high stakes, of course, featuring in numerous Merseyside and Manchester derbies over the years. But this provides a window into both how Sterling the player and character will influence the Blues after his debut in what was largely a scrappy, forgettable 1-0 victory against Everton, with little opportunity for Sterling to sparkle.
There was excellent industry and an appetite to retain momentum to moves, while searching for creative solutions to unlock a stubborn Toffees rearguard. And ultimately it was Sterling’s perseverance to fend off an aggressive challenge from Nathan Patterson before a swift exchange led to Ben Chilwell sneaking into the box and winning a penalty that Jorginho gleefully tucked away.
But despite fanfare surrounding Romelu Lukaku’s departure after an alarming struggle to adjust to Tuchel’s methods in London last season, the German still needs to provide evidence he can implement the right tactics to allow Sterling to flourish as he finds more rhythm to his game with guaranteed minutes.
"He said he wanted my directness,” Sterling said after revealing the nature of a conversation with his German coach before sealing a £47.5 million move. “And how I run in behind as well as how I attack the full backs which is something he wants to see a lot more of.
"My position is mainly as a winger, but sometimes I like floating about and getting on the ball, I always judge myself by how effective I am for the game. I’ll be most happy where I’m most effective and can help the team.”
While former Chelsea winger Joe Cole insists Sterling will ensure a fluid element to the front three under Tuchel.
“It’s a great signing for Chelsea,” Cole told The Independent ahead of the launch of The Joe Cole Cast as part of BT Sport Pods. “He’s already a superstar, but Chelsea needed experience in that position, speed, goals and he brings all of those to the table.
“He’s a leader. When he steps up on important occasions, we’ve seen that with England. It’ll be a great relationship between the player and the club. He’ll bring on the players around him too; Pulisic, Mount, Havertz, they can all take things from Raheem’s game. He’s been doing it for more than a decade now.
“He’ll have a position, Tuchel will work from his base: three centre-backs, four in the midfield with the wing-backs, but then the two No 10s have a lot of freedom and he’ll benefit from that in some respect compared to City.
“I think it’s a move to guarantee goals and assists. Sometimes he’ll play central, then off the left and the right. I think he’ll really enjoy it.”
It was Tuchel’s tactical superiority last season that left Antonio Conte in a spin, with three victories in just 18 days over their bitter rivals.
A box in possession formed by Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech behind Kai Havertz and Romelu Lukaku appeared to confuse Conte and Spurs at Stamford Bridge. While Ziyech worked tirelessly off the ball in that Carabao Cup semi-final first leg, serving as a wing-back, he swiftly worked higher up the pitch on it to provide a mismatch against Spurs’ midfield two of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp.
Conte will have learned considerably from the experience, while the club has reloaded with ruthless efficiency in the market this summer, leaving Sunday’s derby delicately poised with both sides eager to join the title picture alongside Manchester City and Liverpool, rather than a scrap to remain inside the top four.
“It’s always been there, but in the last 10-20 years, it’s a derby that has taken on a new significance,” Cole adds when discussing the rivalry between Chelsea and Spurs. “Tottenham haven’t really threatened Chelsea in terms of winning trophies, but they’ve always been the team yapping at their toes.
“They’re now in a fantastic position with Conte, they’ve done good business. Again, they’re yapping at the toes again. Both sets of fans love this derby. It’s one the players will enjoy. If Sterling scores on Sunday, he’ll automatically become a fan favourite. It’s a big game, but he’ll be completely used to it.”
Spurs’ strong finish last season, combined with the inevitability of Chelsea’s protracted takeover eventually taking its toll on the pitch, ensured just three points separated the side. Tuchel has thrived in head-to-head challenges, but with 18 and 19 points to Liverpool and Manchester City, he craves consistent end product in the final third across a Premier League marathon.
Sterling has racked up 78 goals and 34 assists over the last five Premier League seasons, by comparison and in reference to the calibre of player Tuchel craves: a wide forward capable of serving as the team’s primary scorer at times and providing a baseline of production. Son Heung-min produced 75 goals and 39 assists and Sadio Mane contributed 77 goals and 24 assists over the same period.
Only time will tell if Sterling is the missing piece for Tuchel, but Sunday offers a glimpse of how Tuchel will utilise Sterling in the games that truly matter.
Out wide, through the middle or floating across the pitch, it is time to see if Sterling can take Chelsea’s attack to that next level.
The Joe Cole Cast launches on 27 August as part of brand new line-up of free podcasts, BT Sport Pods. Cole’s 12-part series reflects on the moments and personalities that have featured during Joe’s time in football, featuring the likes of Paul Scholes and Harry Redknapp. For more info visit btsport.com/pods