England ‘enjoyed’ a decent run at Euro 2012 this summer, putting on a much better show than many people had hoped for prior to the tournament, even if we became somewhat painful to watch in the process. A highlight of this unexpected upturn in results was the form of Glen Johnson, who emerged with his reputation enhanced after a series of calm and assured displays.
The public mood prior to Euro 2012 was that the right-back slot for Roy Hodgson’s ‘revolution’ was a straight gunfight between Manchester City’s Micah Richards and Tottenham’s Kyle Walker. The former fell out of favour at Roberto Mancini’s eventual title-winning team as they went into the home straight while the latter was frustratingly injured given his precocious talent.
However, it appeared as if Johnson may have been first choice all along. Of course, we will never really know for sure, due to Walker’s injury, with Hodgson stating that he would have liked to have taken the 22 year-old right back, but one suspects the cautious nature of the former West Brom boss would have seen him err on the side of caution with concerns to the selection.
Richards, though, was discarded by the wayside after falling down the pecking order at right back behind Pablo Zabaleta at a pivotal and important time in the season at club level. The only England manager since his breakthrough at City in 2005-6 to hand him a regular starting role with England has been Steve McClaren. Fabio Capello, Roy Hodgson and to a lesser extent, Mancini, all remain unconvinced by his ability against high-quality opposition, so there’s clearly something amiss that layman such as myself cannot quite put their finger on.
Everyone appears to have a pre-judged opinion on Johnson – good going forward, ropey at the back – appears to the thought-process that most subscribe to. You could see while the Euros were on in the match reports after the game, and the arbitrary marks out of ten, that most had decided on his rating even before kick-off, with the blurb surely pre-prepared. There was little praise for his contribution, while Ashley Cole on the other side (a player everyone rates) was repeatedly lauded despite struggling against both Matthieu Debuchy and Andriy Yarmolenko in two of England’s group games.
A knock-on effect of Cole’s shaky form throughout the tournament, which little real scrutiny was attached to, was that Ashley Young, who offered little to no attacking threat in a disappointing showing, had to cover for Cole on more than one occasion. He was often found having to cover down the left and struggled to get out of his own half for the most part, bogged down by his defensive duties, and to be honest, some of Cole’s too.
On the right-hand flank, James Milner became entrenched in same six-yard square radius, running around like a headless chicken for the most part, but putting in an almighty shift each display. The thinking was clear, place a defensive wide midfielder so that he can help counteract and balance out an attacking full-back. It worked to an extent because Johnson’s displays were on the whole, very good, even though Milner’s left a lot to be desired.
Against France, Johnson covered behind Terry and Lescott crucially on a couple of dangerous-looking situations. During the Sweden game, he prevented two clear goalscoring opportunities with a pair of superb last-ditch tackles – not the sort that John Terry makes, to cover up and atone for a previous blunder – but well-timed, brilliantly executed interceptions. In both these situations, Sweden broke off corners at the other end at pace and outnumbered England, who were on the back-foot, with 4 vs 2, given the circumstances, he managed to cover his options very well.
Nonetheless, there is the inevitable error, which always threatens to creep into Johnson’s game, and came for Sweden’s first goal, where somewhat impressively, he managed to play almost the entire Swedish nation onside, resulting in Olof Mellberg’s first goal – a rare lapse in concentration that was punished severly.
Pre-conceived notions and already formed opinions seem to hamper a lot of folks when judging Johnson objectively, though. He does retain the odd clanger in his locker, there’s no doubt about that, but so does every modern full-back, particularly attacking ones. I didn’t hear quite the same level of criticism of Walker after Manchester United beat Tottenham 3-1 at White Hart Lane last season, where arguably the right back had a hand in all three goals, but had it been Johnson, the ‘good going forward, bad at the back’ brigade would have been out in force.
Johnson’s main attributes are the same as what they always were – decent delivery from out wide, the ability to beat a full-back, two-footed, somewhat comfortable in possession – but as he’s matured, while the positional discipline can sometimes be lacking, it’s markedly improved, and he’s not bad in the air either. He has, though, developed a worrying penchant for the injury table last term, making just 23 league appearances, but when fit and on form, he’s one of the best right backs in the top flight.
The £17m Liverpool originally paid for him always looked a large fee for a full-back, such is the premium you pay for English talent these days, but as he enters his fourth season at Anfield, just through sheer durability and reliability compared to his predecessors for the position, the 27 year-old is beginning to approach value for money. Josemi, Kromkamp and Degen all turned out to be woefully short of the standard required. Steve Finnan and Alvaro Arbeloa were unqualifed successes, but one was poached by Real Madrid and the other succumbed to age and niggling injuries.
Johnson is far from perfect, but he is often unfairly criticised and targeted on the basis of the player he used to be rather than the player he is today. He remains England first-choice right-back for a reason, he boasts a wealth of international and European experience and it’s time we started to re-evaluate our opinion of him, rather than lazily giving into the collective mass-produced hive mind of the tabloid media.
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