When Raheem Sterling missed the first one-on-one chance against Sweden’s goalkeeper, a cold chill ran up my spine and I shuddered. He was saved by the linesman declaring the chance rightfully offside, but the damage had been done. Missing a one-on-one chance is one of the most crushing things that can happen to a forward and I could feel his pain in my own bones.
I’ve played soccer at all different levels, from NCAA to professionally in Turkey, and somehow my most famous moment was when I missed a one-on-one chance in an NPSL game. In all fairness, I was hungover for that game:
64' - Madu follows with a chance of his own. He finds himself 1v1 with Windsor's GK but can't get a shot off before the GK collects. #DCTID— Detroit City FC (@DetroitCityFC) April 24, 2016
This miss has haunted me since that day. Now, when I miss similar chances in games or in practice, I think of the tweet and how it’s come to define me.
After Sterling missed the first chance, he went on to miss an even more glaring chance later on in the game. This one was actually onside. Again he managed to beat the offside trap, but this time when he got the ball, instead of trying to place the ball as he did with the first chance, he tried to round the keeper. The keeper managed to get a hand on the ball as Sterling went to the right and palmed the ball away from goal. Sterling got the ball back and could have passed to Harry Kane in the middle after two defenders recovered and blocked his path, but I knew he wouldn’t pass it. I knew that he would try to create space for himself and shoot.
Sterling’s mind at that time wasn’t dealing with sensible things. Things like passing to Kane and taking the easy route to goal. To the general public, trying to score himself seems like a bad decision, but that’s if we ignore that he was fighting internal demons at that point. Sterling was trying to exorcise the misses from his mind. When he got that ball back, all he could think about was his redemption ... and redemption is a road that we must all walk alone.
Missing a one-on-one chance is crushing. As a forward you’re supposed to have a short memory — misses happen, you’ll miss more chances than you will score — but not all misses are the same. Missing a difficult chance can be easily forgotten just because to score a chance like that is to be exceptional. If Marco Van Basten had missed his volley, no one would have faulted him.
Before the first miss, Sterling had an earlier opportunity where he brought the ball down between two defenders in the box and was dispossessed as he shaped up to shoot. There could be no commotion about that, and there wasn’t. On the contrary, that he was able to bring the ball down in those conditions was so impressive and unexpected that it superseded what happened next.
But when you’re one-on-one with a goalkeeper, it is the easiest opportunity for a forward barring just having an open goal. You have too many ways to score for a miss to be truly forgivable. You can chip the keeper like Carlos Vela, you can round him to truly embarrass them and drive home the inner powerlessness and dread that comes with the goalkeeping position or you can place the ball right outside their reach, letting them dive at it, giving the keeper the cruel hope that they had a chance at stopping the shot.
When you’re one-on-one with the goalkeeper, everyone’s attention is on the two of you. It is one of the few times in a game where the game is reduced to a purely individual battle. It condenses the drama of soccer into one scene, forward vs. goalkeeper, each trying to make the other one react first, and it’s nerve-wracking. The only thing worse is penalties.
It is why composure is the most valuable skill in a one-on-one situation. Having the skill to score in various ways is great, but knowing that you will score, deciding what to do beforehand, being confident that you will best the keeper, not cowering under the pressure, is a critical skill. Because when you’re one-on-one, time seems to slow down and you can overthink the situation and find yourself falling to your knees in despair after the keeper saves your pathetic shot comfortably.
For all of Sterling’s talents and goal-scoring exploits during the club season, and while he has been one of, if not England’s best attacking player so far, he hasn’t had any composure in front of goal during this World Cup. When he gets in front of a keeper, his mind seems to shut down and the occasion overwhelms him, which results in the hilarious and pitiful scene of him shooting straight at the keeper or getting the ball palmed away, and then grimacing towards the sky, toward the gods who abandoned him at the critical moment.
Even if the crowd understands and forgives him, and the team gets a lead, and everything works out well, the memory of the miss doesn’t go away. Rightfully or not, Sterling and every other forward who has missed a golden opportunity like he did, works extra hard to try to make up for the miss.
That’s when the forward gets super selfish. That’s when they become blinded to their teammates and try to score from damn near impossible angles. At that point there’s a match within the actual match, a battle that the forward is waging with himself to try to prove that the miss doesn’t define him. An attempt to conquer the keeper and relieve himself of the burden of messing up one of the easiest chances in the game of soccer. All they need is a goal, any goal, so they can move on. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a deflection or an own goal.
At halftime of the England vs Sweden game, Alexi Lalas of Fox Soccer, a former defender, suggested that Sterling should be substituted. But Lalas misunderstood the situation, Sterling didn’t need to be saved from himself. Ian Wright, a former forward who understood exactly what Sterling was going through, rejected the idea of substituting him.
Wright said that Sterling needed to stay in for his confidence, because what he needed most at the time and going forward, is to erase the memory of the misses. Otherwise, they’re going to keep haunting him and he’s going to be triggered whenever he sees another forward miss a one-on-one chance, a feeling I know too well.