Gareth Southgate feels Raheem Sterling is developing the leadership qualities to become an increasingly influential figure for England – both on and off the pitch.
The Manchester City forward hit a hat-trick as Southgate’s side got their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign under way with an impressive 5-0 win over the Czech Republic.
Next up is a trip to face Montenegro in Podgorica on Monday evening, with Sterling expected to retain his place in the team.
The 24-year-old has scored five goals in his last three international outings and has amassed 15 Premier League strikes for City so far this season.
The statistics suggest a player who has always shown potential is now starting to deliver – but it is away from the game where those closest to Sterling believe he has also developed.
He has spoken out about what he considered to be racism from the British media and also unveiled a T-shirt after his second goal on Friday night which paid tribute to Damary Dawkins – a 13-year-old who died following a battle with leukaemia after Sterling had used his profile to attempt to find a donor.
Southgate revealed he has added Sterling to his leadership group, which also contains captain Harry Kane as well as other more senior internationals such as Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier.
“In between November and March, observing his maturity and influence, I felt that would be a good step for him,” the England manager said of his decision.
“I think when you speak to other young players, he’s one of the first they speak about making them feel really comfortable in the environment. That was a really important move for him.”
Southgate stopped short of hailing Sterling as a potential future England captain but believes he is showing similar traits to those who have worn the armband previously.
“We’ve had three or four players captaining the team, and Raheem is developing lots of the qualities those guys have,” he said.
“He has those qualities. It’s difficult to talk about a potential captain when the captain is in the hotel waiting to go out for dinner, but in terms of his personal qualities, he’s shown some outstanding personal qualities.”
While Sterling has been in a rich vein of goalscoring form of late, he had scored just two England goals in his first 45 international appearances.
He was also arguably one of the few players to receive criticism during England’s run to the World Cup semi-final last summer as he operated in an unfamiliar central role in Southgate’s set-up.
But the England boss refuted the suggestion a change in system following the finals is the reason for Sterling hitting a purple patch.
“He had 30-odd internationals before playing on the wing, so I don’t think it was just about the formation, though the types of chances you get as a central striker can be different to those he receives now,” Southgate added.
“For me the biggest thing is, he’s in such a confident mood, he’s finishing without thinking. He’s in flow, and for any sportsman that’s a great place to be. You want to play without thinking. As soon as you think about what you’re going to do, you hesitate.
“It was the missing piece in his performances. Now he’s added that, people have recognised the other qualities even more.
“There was an understanding from us and our opponents of the impact, but as a forward you’re judged on numbers. Now he’s adding those numbers.”
Henderson played alongside Sterling at Liverpool ahead of his move to the Etihad Stadium and backed up Southgate’s assertion that he has now become an influential part of the England set-up.
“It’s been really good for me because I’m close to him, to see his progression as a player and a person,” Henderson said.
“We knew he had something special at Liverpool. You could see how good he was, and he had the right mentality.
“I feel as though he’s more of a leader now in the England team. That’s come with experience. But he’s always had that good mentality towards football.
“I knew from the minute I started training with him that he’s a special player. He’s proved how good he is in the last couple of years. He can still get better, and he will do. Everyone has seen how special he is for England and City.
“We all know how good a player he is, and he has the right mentality to keep wanting more and stay hungry. It’s been a pleasure to watch him grow in the last few years.”