Right back at you: In defence of Glen Johnson

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Ian Rush, Frank Lampard, Tony Adams, Fabio Capello and me don’t have much in common – we don’t hang out much – but we do have some things in common. At least two of us allegedly like pies, for a start. We also all think Glen Johnson is one of the best right backs in world football and is certainly the best in the Premier League. Yet, after (literally) a few bad minutes in a friendly against Slovenia, he has, to quote Mark Bright’s Metro column on Tuesday: “now become a liability for Capello… he could just cost England the World Cup.”

If we look at Bright’s article some more, he calls upon the judgement of Johnson’s manager at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho, who apparently didn’t think Johnson a top class fullback. The Special One’s judgement in this position is hardly faultless though, as Michael Essien could testify when having to stand-in for Paolo Ferreira. Maicon, regarded by many as the best right back in the world at the moment, was already at Inter when Jose arrived.

Bright goes on to say, “it was amazing how easily Johnson was beaten [for Slovenia’s goal].” “Amazing”? Really Mark? But you just told us that Johnson’s defending is such a liability that it could get his team knocked out of the World Cup? This, despite being part of a team that’s scored 31 goals in eight qualifiers (Johnson set up four in England’s 6-0 win over Andorra alone) and has conceded just five.

Bright, like Patrick Barclay in The Times on Monday, then makes some unfair and odd comparisons as to who Johnson is inferior to. First up is Gianluca Zambrotta, another attacking fullback (a former winger, no less, now at football’s equivalent of The Lion King’s Elephants’ Graveyard in Milan), but he was hardly the lynchpin to Italy and Barcelona’s successes in 2006 (in fact, he only won the Spanish Super Cup while at Barca). Next is Cafu, which is bit like saying Ashley Cole isn’t as good as Paolo Maldini or John Terry’s no Franz Beckenbauer. While Cole, on the other flank, was not the world class left back he is now until a couple of seasons ago and passing some rigorous tests against Ronaldo and Messi.

Hopefully Bright, Barclay and others have rethought their opinions of Johnson after his performance against Croatia on Wednesday. Yes, he was spun dizzy before the cross that eventually led to Croatia’s goal, but the ball went across the box, halfway back again and into the net without a single interception from an England defender. That’s at least four men’s fault, not one. And to focus on that in a 5-1 win would be to ignore the rest of the team and Johnson’s strong header to prevent Eduardo scoring earlier; his cross for Lampard’s second goal; a flick with the outside of his left heel to find Lennon; and the way he, like Rio Ferdinand, can dribble and pass his way out of defence rather than just thumping the ball away. Their less noisy style of defending is easier to criticise when they have a bad game (they’re nonchalant and lack concentration), while if Terry or Jamie Carragher play badly they can be defended by pundits who mistake ‘running, criticising others a lot without winning the ball and sometimes getting your face kicked in’ for ‘passion’.

Then there’s the start Johnson’s had to his Liverpool career: two goals, an assist and some reliability.

Already, he’s become a third player for the Reds to fall back on after Gerrard and Torres. This is the progress Rafa promised! But (slightly more) seriously, at Liverpool Johnson and Dirk Kuyt provide cover for each other attacking and defending. Their running means there’s always two players for opponents to consider, while Johnson’s crossing is good and Kuyt’s tackling decent enough that Liverpool’s right side is one of the most dependable and ‘all-round’ in the league. For England, Johnson gets forward – often with a desirable final product – but Lennon or Walcott don’t/can’t help him out as Kuyt does. Wright-Phillips (because he’s a far harder worker in his second spell at City) and Beckham (because he’s too slow to leave much of a gap between him and the right back) would be better partners to get the best out of Johnson – England’s only uninjured, regularly starting right back.

There have been far too many flaws to start of Liverpool’s season (and England have more of them than some people will admit), mostly Alonso- and substitute striker-shaped, but Benitez is at least getting the best out of his £18m right back.

Stephen Eddie is a neutral football fan and freelance journalist currently working in London. Visit his blog at Pulling Shapes.

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