Raheem Sterling’s goal was all about Kalvin Phillips’s pace and vision. He galloped through the inside-right channel, foxed two Croatian markers with his blistering speed and drilled a perfect through-pass to Sterling, whose first-time shot was woefully placed but powerful enough to burst through the custodian. It was not a pass meant for Sterling. It might have been for Harry Kane who hulks the central territory, or it could have been for Phil Foden slicing in from the right wing. But it was Sterling who pounced in, from apparent nothingness.

It was that moment — and not that goal — that described Sterling and his gifts.

His faculty to visualise multiple moves ahead of him like a chess player, the boundless energy and purpose, his speed of thought and cleverness of movement, his ability to shake off markers with quick turns. There were quicker forwards around him, like Foden, a more natural striker – in Kane. But no one saw what Sterling saw, and he set off like a blur in his signature upright thrust. He’s not the quickest, but he might well be the most explosive one. He spares no time to accelerate, as if he rips off in the fourth gear at all times. And at the heart of the goal was the tenacity to keep bouncing back from spells of indifferent form and incessant criticism.

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 Raheem Sterling has been directly involved in 19 goals in his last 17 games for England (13 goals, 6 assists) 🔥🔥🔥#EURO2020 pic.twitter.com/muNEvOJh2Z

Tough season

The Manchester City player had endured an indifferent season with his club, copped scorn from fans and pundits, been racially abused online after defeat in the Champions League final to Chelsea; he’s not the quickest or the most technically adept English player, his movements are not a spectacle, but managers keep trusting him through his rough days.

Sometimes, he could be a bit scattered, all over the place. He moves so much around the pitch that his club manager Pep Guardiola once drew a chalk spot on the training pitch and instructed him to stand there during periods out of possession. For, he instinctively used to cut inside the box and join the crowd, thus compressing space and destroying the finely-chiselled structure.

Against Croatia’s backline, not the most mobile group, the randomness of his movements was a blessing. They could not predict which way he would turn or in which direction he would twist, or even which foot he would shoot with. The build-up to Foden’s almost-a-goal-moment, when he struck the far post, was a classic example. When Sterling took off, most of Croatia’s players were drifting wide, anticipating that he would drift away and snake inside. He took the opposite route, he slithered towards his right, leaving a couple of shadow-chasers in the wake and darted in like an arrow before slipping in a neat pass to Foden. He, thus, is a master of disguise. Usually forwards give a hint, like a drop of the shoulder or a half-gaze from the corner of the eye towards the direction they intend to travel. But Sterling telegraphs nothing, just as he hides none of his emotions, but a sense of imminent doom.

Croatia’s left-back Šime Vrsaljko would testify. Sterling drew him into a challenge just outside the box, beat him with a cute feint before dinking a pass to Mason Mount. The instant he released the ball, he swivelled and burst into one of his supersonic sprints into the space left behind by Vrsaljko. What he did without the ball was even more delicious than what he did with it.

His movements are not unorthodox but unusual. Like his half-turn, wherein he stops midway through a turn and breaks away from his shirt-chaser. He wiggles through cramped spaces and gets behind defences. Some say he deliberately feigns rustiness to create a false sense of safety, before exploding. Numerous were the instances he got behind the Croatian defence and flipped crosses to the far post.

England coach Gareth Southgate too deserves credit for Sterling’s reversal of form. For he has furnished him the allowance to be what he is, not imprisoned in a structural cage. And Sterling delivered. He was not the best player on the pitch. It was Phillips, but Sterling made the most telling touch.

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