There is a song that will not be heard at the Etihad Stadium this season; not unless a corner of Chelsea supporters chorus it, anyway. “Raheem Sterling, he’s top of the league,” was part of the soundtrack of Manchester City’s surge to four Premier League titles in five seasons. And if it was scarcely the wittiest of chants, it felt one of the more meaningful. It was an assertion of superiority while highlighting one of the reasons for it.
Sterling’s move to Chelsea feels a coup in several respects. At a price of £45m, less than half the amount they paid for Romelu Lukaku last summer and less than Fernando Torres cost 11 years ago, he looks a relative bargain for a club whose record signings, from Andriy Shevchenko to Kepa Arrizabalaga, can go wrong. It is a rare case, certainly since the early days of Roman Abramovich’s ownership, of raiding a major domestic rival. It raises the prospect that, like N’Golo Kante before him, Sterling could win successive Premier Leagues with different clubs, the second in Chelsea blue.
Yet, while Chelsea will acquire Sterling for around the sum City paid in 2016, this is about more than just securing value for money at the start of Todd Boehly’s regime. He may represent the first true Thomas Tuchel signing, giving an indication of the manager’s greater say in recruitment. If Lukaku was supposed to be Tuchel’s flagship buy, an uneasy relationship cast doubt on the German’s role in his arrival the increasingly cliched description of the Belgian last summer – the final piece in the jigsaw – looks more applicable to Sterling; at least as far as the forward line is concerned.
The numbers alone show the vacancy in attack. Chelsea got 76 league goals last season, Liverpool 94 and City 99. Their top scorer in the Premier League was Mason Mount, whose tally of 11 put him tied for 14th place in the division; the year before, Jorginho led the way with Chelsea with seven, leaving him joint 44th. If Lukaku was supposed to be the finisher, he was left looking a one-dimensional one, unsuited to Chelsea’s possession game, a static passenger, his inability to get on the same wavelength as his teammates summed up by his seven-touch display against Crystal Palace.
It was compounded by the nature of his sidekicks. The classic Tuchel front three – in as much as there is one for a team who have scored too few goals – was his Champions League final trio: the profligate Timo Werner plus Kai Havertz and Mount, all-rounders who can excel at everything except putting the ball in the back of the net. The ideal third man to accompany selfless figures has to be more of a scorer than a supplier.
Sterling can feel curiously underrated both as a finisher and a footballer. A capacity to take chances in ways that look scuffed or scruffy or simple can deflect attention from the sheer volume: only Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero have scored more goals for Pep Guardiola and he has outscored Chelsea’s leading marksman in each of the last five Premier League seasons. Perhaps crucially, he can be potent from a wider starting position, allowing Havertz to operate as a false nine. Pertinently for Tuchel, he has shown the ability to adapt to the instructions of another tactical micro-manager, timing and angling his runs to suit Guardiola’s demands. Sterling can be the predator who nonetheless allows his manager to play a fluid forward line.
There are hints that Tuchel could look to amend his blueprint and play a variant of 4-4-2, though he has natural wing backs and his finest remaining central defender, Thiago Silva, plays best in a trio. A willingness to change may indicate his frustration at their relative impotence. Too few forwards – Lukaku, Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi – have really excelled under him. Even Havertz feels a case of potential not fully realised.
And yet rewind into Tuchel’s past and he got speedy forwards cutting in from the flanks to score in copious quantities. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Kylian Mbappe both topped 30 league goals in seasons under Tuchel: different players, different clubs, different leagues and different systems, admittedly, but Sterling shares certain common denominators. If there is a challenge to make Chelsea more exciting, more viscerally entertaining, Sterling has been a poacher in a passing team. In particular, he is the specialist at getting into scoring positions: he is not guaranteed to be clinical, but he pops up in the penalty box. The statistically inclined may note he has finished in the top 10 in each of the last four seasons for non-penalty goals per 90 minutes in the Premier League; last season, in what appeared an underwhelming year for him, only Mohamed Salah had a higher expected goals per 90.
He nevertheless leaves City after two years of personal stagnation, when Guardiola often benched him for the bigger games and erred by picking him for the largest of all, the 2021 Champions League final against Chelsea. Yet, as Euro 2020 suggested, his powers remain undiminished. For Chelsea, he looks a natural fit and an excellent price. The loaned-out Lukaku, the £98m signing who was exiled a year later, looks the greatest failure of Tuchel’s time in charge. He was supposed to take Chelsea to the top of the league. Now, in Sterling, they have a forward with the track record of getting the goals to position a club there.