A poor performance against Peru in England's 3-0 victory on Friday night underlined a miserable season for Glen Johnson overall, and with persistent questions surrounding his form, does the 29-year-old still warrant an England first-team place?
Amid a night of poor touches and mindless decision-making, Johnson was Roy Hodgson’s weakest link in what was an otherwise routine victory over a lesser South American opposition.
David Ornstein, of BBC Sport, ranked the Liverpool man as one of the worst in an England shirt on the night, saying “[Johnson] was caught upfield too often and was guilty of a number of poor touches.”
This will be of no surprise to any Reds fans watching on, as this has become typical of the Englishman’s game since the beginning of the 2013/14 season.
Established as Hodgson’s de facto starting right-back, Johnson will likely start all of England’s games at the Brazil World Cup; however, if poor form continues, this will be a major flaw in the 66-year-old’s game plan.
With tonight’s friendly against Ecuador in Miami likely to see the former Liverpool manager experimenting with his side, perhaps it is time to question whether Johnson warrants a place at all.
Form with Liverpool, 2013/14
Johnson’s 2013/14 season with Liverpool was a dismal affair, despite his side’s unexpected title challenge.
The former Portsmouth man made 29 league appearances, as the Reds went on to concede a remarkable 50 goals throughout their quest for glory.
As per Whoscored.com, aside from the comparatively inexperienced full-back Jon Flanagan, Johnson was the most dribbled-past defender in the Reds’ squad in 2013/14.
The right-back was beaten by his opposing winger 0.8 times per game on average.
This can be attributed to the lacking of positioning that Ornstein referred to in his criticism of the 29-year-old’s game against Peru.
A key example of Johnson’s poor positioning—getting “caught upfield too often”—came in Liverpool’s miserable 3-3 draw against Crystal Palace towards the end of the season.
Yannick Bolasie, a devastatingly lightning-fast left winger on his day, was allowed to knock the ball past the Englishman with great ease.
Trailing in his wake, Johnson failed to block the cross which eventually allowed Dwight Gayle an easy goal.
Furthermore, in the attacking sector, WhoScored show Johnson to be the most dispossessed defender in the Liverpool squad, losing the ball 1.2 times per game on average.
Losing the ball at one end of the field and failing to retrieve it at the other have seemingly become hallmarks of Johnson’s game.
If the performance against Peru is anything to go by, there is little change in the 29-year-old’s form when it comes to the international stage.
Ornstein opened his criticism of Johnson by claiming “[Johnson has] experience that should help his country in Brazil, but the lack of competition at right-back could be an issue.”
Within the England squad, Johnson is the only natural right-back; Manchester United’s Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are able to deputise, whilst current stand-by John Stones has featured on the right flank in the past.
This is much the same within the Liverpool squad, with Jon Flanagan utilised mainly as a left-back; this left Johnson as the only senior right-back at the club.
Complacency may then be attributed to the 29-year-old if performances continue to fade.
As mentioned, Hodgson is set to experiment with his line-up against Ecuador, and reports claim that Manchester City utility-man James Milner will be deployed in favour of Johnson on the right-hand side of defence.
Phil McNulty, of BBC Sport, quotes Hodgson on Milner:
James will play right-back against Ecuador. He's got the qualities to play there. There may be moments in the World Cup where we'd like to use him there. This will give him some experience of that position. He's in the squad as a right or left-sided midfield player and that's where we see him mostly, but it will be interesting to see how he gets on at right-back.
This experiment by Hodgson, and his vested interest in Milner as a right-back, is one which may be continued by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
Matt Law of The Telegraph suggests that the Frenchman wishes to sign the 28-year-old as a replacement for Bacary Sagna this summer.
Clearly, both managers—of vast and admirable experience—see an ability to adapt into this defensive position within Milner, and the Englishman surely has the qualities to match.
A great crosser of the ball, with a consistent versatility and dominant work rate, Milner would suit this move into right-back with consummate ease.
That Hodgson is set to leave out a player who was surely once one of the first names on his team sheet in favour of a player utilised out of position suggests that Johnson’s first-team place is in doubt.
Aside from Milner, Hodgson has a plethora of options to use in the right-back position in Johnson’s stead.
Within the current squad, it is most likely that either of Manchester United’s Jones or Smalling would fit the bill most aptly.
As per WhoScored, Smalling made 15 appearances for the Red Devils at right-back in 2013/14; furthermore, the 24-year-old won 60 percent of his attempted tackles and 74 percent of his attempted take ons, contributing in both defence and attack, per Squawka.
Jones has been criticised on occasion, perhaps unfairly, for his versatility, and the 22-year-old was used eight times on the right-hand side of defence in 2013/14 according to WhoScored.
The Englishman is a lesser prospect in this position when compared to Smalling, winning only 51 percent of his tackles attempted and 53 percent of his take ons, again per Squawka.
If Hodgson were to opt for one of the pair, Smalling is better suited to the right-back role.
Elsewhere, stand-by defenders Stones and Jon Flanagan have impressed in the full-back position when called upon, but neither have former senior international experience.
Everton man Stones came on against Peru as a right-back, and played confidently, but his elegance on the ball, evidenced by a Squawka-attributed 90 percent pass success rate, suggest his future is at centre-back.
Liverpool youngster Flanagan would relish the opportunity to impress Hodgson against Ecuador, per the Liverpool Echo’s Neil Jones, saying it would be a “dream come true.”
The full-blooded 21-year-old has impressed the Anfield faithful with his ability to contribute both in defence and attack within Brendan Rodgers’ system, and he outperformed Johnson throughout 2013/14; however, it is likely his inexperience will play against for this tournament.
With Crystal Palace’s Joel Ward and Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne and Calum Chambers all similarly impressive this season, there is no reason for Hodgson to rest his laurels on Johnson.
For the World Cup
Whilst it is likely that Hodgson’s experiment with Milner at right-back is just that, and that Johnson is still likely to start every game of the World Cup, it is encouraging that the 66-year-old is willing to accept that the Liverpool man may not be the be-all and end-all for the Three Lions.
For this tournament, experience will likely work in Johnson's favour.
Poor performances throughout 2013/14 echo that of under Hodgson for the Reds in 2009/10, with BBC Sport quoting the manager at the time claiming “he's not performed - very often at least - to the level I'd expect of him.”
Following this precedent, and with the clear abundance of quality in the right-back position for England, perhaps it is time Hodgson made a change for the better.
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