Owen Hargreaves, Frank Lampard, James Milner, and now Glen Johnson are four of the most prominent England players who, over the past decade or so, have come in for a remarkable level or criticism from their own fans. From Hargreaves, who was never appreciated as part of the squad until his breakthrough tournament in 2006, despite being part of the set-up for 5 years previous, to Lampard’s torrid time at Wembley in 2007 when he got booed constantly by his own fans, and Milner receiving unfair criticism from people not understanding his role in recent years, England supporters have quite often missed the point about what a player does for their team, and if media coverage and fan’s reception on the internet is anything to go by over the past few weeks, Glen Johnson is the latest victim.
This is nothing new as a phenomenon or to Glen Johnson himself. There are – quite rightly – always question marks on players playing at the top level if they’ve not fully proven themselves, as there is such a wide pool of players who rival them for a place in the 23 man squad at tournaments. What is perhaps odd about the criticism of Glen Johnson is that he’s already proven himself.
Making the right-back position his own just before the World Cup in 2010, Johnson was perhaps one of the only players who played for England left untarnished from his involvement, rarely making much in the way of mistakes, a poor game against Germany – as everyone else had – aside. This was consolidated with some further strong performances in the Premier League with Liverpool. During a difficult time for Liverpool, Glen Johnson was one of the more consistent performers when fit, showing great versatility in switching from his usual right back berth to a left back and full back position at times under Dalglish and Rodgers in recent seasons. At Euro 2012, Johnson went on to become perhaps England’s most solid performer, becoming a vital part of a very stingy defence which let in 3 goals in 4 games – none due to or down Johnson’s right hand flank.
Furthermore, Johnson had a successful season with Liverpool as they pushed back into the top 4 on the back of a sustained title challenge, playing the vast majority of games (29 in the league) despite struggling with injury.
A lot of the recent clamour for Johnson not being in the team or indeed squad seems to have come off of the back of Jon Flanagan’s breakthrough season at full back for Liverpool, whether in Johnson’s place or on the other flank. It is, however, hard to see where the people clamouring for Johnson over Flanagan feel they have any ground. Indeed, the only key statistic that favours Jon Flanagan over Glen Johnson this season is his age, being just 21 years of age rather than 29 like Johnson. Even so, while Flanagan has a future in the game and possibly even the England set-up, any claims that he’s defensively more secure are wrong. Indeed, Johnson tends to make more interceptions per game than Flanagan, while they have both made the same amount of mistakes this season – giving the ball away leading to two shots on target apiece. Johnson wins more tackles, earns his side more free kicks, and beats his man far more often than Flanagan while maintaining a slightly higher average passing rate, too. Johnson offers a lot more going forward than Flanagan too, creating more than twice the amount of chances as his counterpart. Everything points to Glen Johnson being the better of the two and the player who deserves to play in Brazil.
Is this to say there aren’t players who could have gone instead of Johnson? Definitely not. Kyle Walker would have been in the equation but for injury – whether rightly or wrongly – while Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne had an incredible season, and is statistically very similar to Glen Johnson, despite playing a handful fewer games. An argument can also be made – at a very long shot – that, given that Johnson’s attacking style tends to be tucking inside his winger in a similar style to Leighton Baines and launching a shot or a pass on the edge of the area to someone outside him, Hodgson could have selected a left back who was comfortable on both feet, perhaps pointing towards the inclusion of Ashley Cole or Kieran Gibbs, yet neither have had better seasons than Johnson – Cole hardly playing for Chelsea while Gibbs has had a similar season to Johnson’s Liverpool counterpart Jon Flanagan. Outside of playing the useless Chris Smalling or an out of position Phil Jones, there isn’t an entirely credible option aside from Glen Johnson, all things considered.
It’s clear that Johnson needs to improve his game on the displays he showed in the pre-tournament friendlies in the World Cup if England are to do anything in the tournament whatsoever. That starts with Italy in Manaus. What is also abundantly clear is that England fans are being harsh on the Liverpool right back, who has always been an effective and loyal servant for the Three Lions and whose ‘poor form’ has been accentuated by a select group of fans looking for any of his errors as evidence he shouldn’t be anywhere near the squad. Win us the cup, Glen!