When Raheem Sterling finally got to talk to Thomas Tuchel about his new role at Chelsea, the German coach told the 27-year-old he did have some different ideas for his game. Tuchel felt Sterling had a propensity to look for the ball to feet, and told him to “get in behind”, “attack the box”. In other words, to look forward.
It very much fits with the mood that Sterling is in as he sits in front of the media for his official introduction as a Chelsea player on a baking Thursday afternoon at Chelsea’s training base in Cobham. Two issues from his recent past inevitably come up.
One is the alleged racial abuse he suffered at Chelsea as a Manchester City player during a game in December 2018, that saw a supporter banned from Stamford Bridge for life. The other is his relationship with Pep Guardiola, and the manner he so abruptly fell out of favour at City.
Sterling addresses both assertively, but with a view to leaving such subjects behind and looking to the future.
That is very much the case with the issue of abuse, where Sterling again displays impressive maturity and progressiveness others could learn from. When he signed for Chelsea, one of the topics most brought up – especially in the dispensable discussion of social media – was how he was going to a club where he faced an incident that he has admitted was a “turning point” in his life.
The player, however, has barely thought about it.
“I saw a short thing about it yesterday,” he says. “That was the first time I remembered it. It wasn’t something that played on my mind at all. I can’t let an incident from individuals change my perception of the club.”
The fallout nevertheless brought about a transformation in his world view, something that very much comes across when he is asked whether he would meet the supporter now.
“I have no hatred or malice towards the individual. That’s something that I could do right here, right now, or tomorrow. That’s not the issue.
“I think my main focus is to move away from the racial kind of thing and focus more on nurturing and feeding the youth, like myself growing up, and giving them a map to what the world lies ahead and show them that they can manifest a lot of stuff if they just put the time in and look after themselves… it made me understand what my true purpose is other than football. Of course, football is my main goal and talent but the other thing that gives me the most joy, that’s helping people. So from that incident, I’ve moved away from the racial side of it and focusing on more helping and nurturing young people.”
He’s clearly developed into a very rounded individual, as his career also comes full circle. Sterling admits that a return to London, after 22 years, just “made sense" for both his career and his family. A west London local renowned as a talent when a child, he laughs that it’s “more than likely” Chelsea approached him when he was young.
There is the hint, though, that he wouldn’t yet be here had things gone a different way at City. While Sterling describes his period at the club as “living the dream”, the last two seasons only involved difficulty.
He speaks somewhat cryptically about his relationship with Guardiola, as Sterling suddenly found himself out of the team.
“It was a big surprise. It was a massive surprise … a change of events all of a sudden. It’s something I had to handle and that’s why I’m here.
“Me and the manager and the people at the club know exactly what the reasons were. I tried to play my football and overcome the situation but it couldn’t be done so I had to move on.
“Since I was 17, I’ve been a regular starter and to get to the peak time in my career, not to be playing regularly was something I wouldn’t accept. My personality is to try to fight and change the scenario but it didn’t come and that was it.”
Some on the City training ground feel that there was an increasing tension and distance between manager and player. Guardiola can be undeniably intense, and some are able to indulge that longer than others. Sterling, however, just couldn’t accept not playing.
It was why he was open to Chelsea when moves were made “towards the end of last season”.
“I got a phone call when I was in Jamaica to say it was heating up,” Sterling says. “That was when I was aware of the seriousness.
“I felt my game time at [Man] City was getting limited for different reasons and I couldn’t afford to waste more time. When I look back in the future, I never wanted to look back and see a rise then a decline. So my feeling was I needed to keep at the same level and a fresh challenge was needed.”
Chelsea didn’t need to sell the club to him.
“With the few other options I had, this one was more tailor-made for my personal goals. If you look at Chelsea in the last couple of years, I think it’s four of five finals they’ve been in, it’s a team that is competing and is only going to get better. So for me, with the new ownership and takeover, it made a lot of sense.”
Tuchel, however, did sell the role.
“He said to me my directness, always threatening in behind, not always wanting it into feet, going in behind. But most importantly it’s how I attack the box, and with the full backs that we have here he said that’s the one thing he wants to see a lot more, so that was the conversation there.”
If it is true that Sterling and Guardiola don’t have a warm relationship now, the Catalan undeniably developed him as a player, changing his perspective. Sterling says he knew his role in the City team “like the back of my hand”. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be all that similar with Chelsea, though.
Sterling doesn’t see as many similarities between his new manager and his old one as others.
“It’s two different systems, two different playing styles. We do a lot of possession here, City do a lot of possession, but it’s completely different. They both want different things. I’m adjusting really well here. It’s the honeymoon period now, but it’s like when you’re really optimistic about something and dream for something – that's where I am.”
And, from there, he’s only looking forward.