Whether it was said with a slight tongue-in-cheek, or was a piece of practical psychology to build up a player’s confidence there was one comment by Fabio Capello which was remarkably striking for a man whose manner strikes of pragmatism defined.
When asked about the performance of Glen Johnson, who many believed to be at fault for the Slovenia goal on Saturday, Capello merely said: “I’m happy with Johnson. Don’t worry, he’s one of the best right backs in the world.”
Judging by the current top right backs around the world, he’s probably slightly overstepping the mark on that one. Certainly the likes of Sergio Ramos, Maicon, and Daniel Alves, for all their faults, would challenge his claim. Johnson, as some would no doubt argue, can neither attack or defend at the same level as these.
However, the place of Johnson has become widely debated. As England have developed a propensity to concede goals which can be attributed to errors on their part, so the question marks over Johnson have arisen.
Clumsy mistakes against Kazakhstan and on Saturday against Slovenia, along with a difficult night suffered against Holland, where he struggled to cope with Arjen Robben, and Liverpool team-mate Ryan Babel, have made Johnson the latest target for critics of Capello’s team.
Furthermore the comments of Slovenia coach, Matjaz Kek, who said: “We had watched videos of England and I noticed that, when a player has as much emphasis on attack as Johnson, there is space behind him. We were successful in exploiting that,” have only increased the level of scrutiny surrounding Johnson.
But as is so often the case for under-fire footballers, the criticisms of Johnson’s claims to the right-back berth in Capello’s England team can be answered over ninety minutes. Should Johnson play a starring role in an England victory over Croatia then it is conceivable that he will have booked his starting role in England’s World Cup Team.
Certainly tomorrow night, Johnson will have a key role to play. He is likely to come face-to-face with former team-mate Niko Kranjcar, who, with Luka Modric’s injury, now represents the main creative outlet for Croatia.
Should Kranjcar be subdued effectively, it could prove decisive in allowing England to dominate possession. While for Johnson, the opportunity to prove himself in what could arguably be England’s last test before South Africa, is one he should relish. Put in a performance here, and his case for inclusion could be unanswerable.
A glance at the contenders for the right-back slot further proves this. While Wes Brown, when fit (hands up whose thought that throughout his career?), clearly offers a solid and more experienced presence at right back than Johnson, though he lacks the dynamic attacking element which Johnson offers.
Elsewhere, the last time Croatia visited Wembley it was Micah Richards-then tipped for a glittering future-who was playing at right back. Since then Richards has dropped off the radar completely under Capello, as he remains prone to defensive mistakes like Johnson, and once more is incapable of matching him in attack.
While Gary Neville, ever the solid, dependable pro, is clearly entering the twilight of what has been a glittering career.
Hence the public display of faith in Johnson by Capello—hardly a manager renowned for taking unnecessary risks. No other right-back offers the combination of attacking verve, athleticism and speed that Johnson offers. While his defending is prone to errors, he clearly can defend-why else would Rafael Benitez-a keen admirer of a strong defence-spend a small fortune on him?
While Johnson is clearly under scrutiny at the moment, Capello’s faith in him still remains. Should he justify his managers’ faith and play a key part in an England victory tomorrow night, then Johnson may make his case for inclusion in Capello’s World Cup team, unanswerable.