Friday, 22 June 2012

Tackling The Glen Agenda

On the night Chelsea stiffled Barcelona in the Camp Nou to reach the Champions League Final, the Times' Tony Evans gave a unique insight into sports journalism by giving his Twitter followers regular updates from his office. One thing that struck me was that his writers in Spain were pencilling in their player ratings as early as the 65th minute of the match. This may merely confirm what most of us already know about the relevance these ratings have to post-match analysis. However, what these moments of premmature knee-jerkulation can highlight is the agenda a writer is working to. A brief (though no less nerdy) study of a dozen UK paper and online publications over the course of England's three Euro 2012 group matches does just that.

In the build-up to Roy Hodgson's Euro 2012 squad announcement, Glen Johnson was widely tipped to be a 'surprise' ommission from the team, or even the entire 23, given the emergence of Kyle Walker, Phil Jones' versatility, and Micah Richards' title-winning form at Man City. Many considered Fabio Capello's consistent selection of Johnson a three-year mistake, with Glen having suffered more than most at the hands of the press after each dismal England display. A change of manager would surely mean a long-awaited adjustment at what is viewed as a problem position in the team.

However, Roy obviously sees in Johnson what the multiple league title and Champions League winning coach did before him, and has stuck by the Liverpool man in a back-four which, a mad 15-minutes against Sweden apart, has done a respectable job so far in Ukraine.

Nonetheless, the singling out of Johnson continued through the warm-up games and into the European Championships, where across the publications, he averages significantly less per game than his fellow defenders, and all but one of his starting colleagues.

What I've seen so far is a player who has made efficient and smart use of the ball going forward, and rarely put a foot wrong at the back. Unfortunately, being marginally the deepest England player while his teammates wasted numerious opportunities to clear a foolishly conceded free-kick, seems to have clouded many peoples' overall assesment of his three performances. Or rather, it has delighted them, as it slots in perfectly with their preconceptions about Johnson, and the rest of his efforts can be ignored.

Johnson is an offensive right-back, and this concept of full-backs being as important to a team's attack as to their defence is one which is still fairly difficult for many long-term viewers of English football to grasp. You can marvel when full-backs overlap to get a cross into the box, but if they're not back in their own penalty area 15 seconds later to make a clearing header, then fingers are wagged, and an attacking full-back autmatically becomes defensively suspect.

Likewise, Spain can pass teams off the park, but if they go 45 minutes without scoring, Andy Townsend will quip: "The opposition won't mind that. That's just tippy tappy football." And if they concede a goal - yep, of course it's because they are too offensive and the full-backs get too far forward, as if its some fundamental flaw in the foreign game, and that there is only one winning footballing formula.

In Hodgson's generally conservative team, attacking full-backs are even more important than in many other setups, as confirmed by Jamie Carragher in one of his Telegraph articles. The midfield four act as defensive protection, with the wide players tucking in as almost secondary full-backs, which is why Carra is convinced Walcott will rarely make a start under Hodge, and why Milner is one of the first names on the sheet.

Milner, the only England player to suffer more than Johnson in the ratings, is being referred to as only playing in the side because Johnson is so poor that he needs some form of special protection to cover his mistakes. So Glen is not just the weak-link himself, he's also responsible for the perceived poor performances of the next scapegoat in line, while the new saviour Walcott is restricted to the bench. Though not quite at his best so far at the Euros, Milner is tactically adept and physically fit enough to do his defensive duty, while supporting Johnson as he attacks. On the left, Cole's ageing legs mean he's less inclined to bomb forward, which makes Young or Oxlaide Chamberlain's inclusion over Downing more viable.

Aside from some early bursts from the Ox against France, most of England's best football has come down the right hand side, and so have all but one of their goals so far. I'm not one for quoting Opta and Prozone stats as i often feel you can find any stat to fit your agenda, though I enjoy them as an aid to analysis - and Johnson's passing and possession statistics have also been impressive. While Gerrard has provided the ammunition for most of England's goals, Johnson has been key to helping England keep the ball, something which unfortunately has not been replicated in other areas of the pitch, and desperately needs addressing before the Italy game.

I am as surprised as anyone that Richards continues to be ignored by England managers, particularly given his versatility, while Walker's injury was a cruel blow after a promising season at Spurs. I remain wholly unconvinced by Phil Jones in any position - a gifted young player who has a long way to go and would do well to concentrate on becoming a decent centre-back first.

Walker and Richards are both eye-catching players, primarily due to their athleticism. Johnson is 6ft and no slouch, but Walker and Richards are far more explosive, powerful athletes who can make dramatic recovery tackles and spectacular overlapping contributions to attacks. Walker also has a decent strike in him too. But for me, Johnson is currently the more rounded player. He's certainly more technical and balanced, with a decent left-foot which means he is as comfortable cutting inside to link-play or go for goal, as he is overlapping. His first touch rarely gets him in trouble and although he is not as positionally reliable as Ashley Cole, he has to rely on his powers of recovery far less than Richards or Walker. And crucially, out of all England's defensive players, he is the most comfortable and proficient in possession.

His contributions, both defensively and offensively, may not slap you in the face - but then Paolo Maldini could go unnoticed for 50 games a season, and he is the finest defender of his generation. It is often the case that the best defensive players, and that includes those holding in midfield, are not neccessarily those that get Peter Drury clamouring for his next nonsensical exclamation.

Sadly, it seems most people made their minds up long ago and can't possibly reconsider. Johnson will have to do something extraordinary to earn their praise, and defensively, that means getting himself into some pretty hairy positions in order to make more last-ditch tackles, or add something in the goals or assists columns at the other end. I hope he continues his fine form as it is , and to ignore the media when he returns to Liverpool after these Championships, as I am particularly confident he is a player well suited to Brendan Rodgers' possession-based game.

More of the same, Glen Johnson.

Thanks for reading.

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