A passing performance nothing short of wizardry by Andrea Pirlo and a savage mauling of the England backline by Luis Suarez sent England crashing out of the World Cup after just two games of the group stage in 2014, and as ever English fans, and above all the British press, sought a scapegoat. They found one in experienced full-back Glen Johnson, a player who had perhaps been below par in Brazil – like many in the England camp – but perhaps suffered from some sort of an image problem.
Not particularly loved at his club side Liverpool, playing in front of a set of fans who somehow coveted the frenetic, uncontrolled style of Jon Flanagan and even preferred untried quantities such as Javier Manquillo to the 54-cap England man, one might have been forgiven for considering Johnson a spent force edging ever closer to the abrupt end of his career, waiting for a final big paycheque before slipping off.
Fast-forward a year, though, and Johnson has experienced somewhat of a renaissance after a summer move away from Merseyside south to Staffordshire. Lured by Mark Hughes to Stoke on a free transfer after six years at Liverpool, Johnson has since become a key totem of a team who, at present, are one of the sensations of the league. In the past month, Stoke have claimed the scalps of both Manchester City and Manchester United in spectacular style, as well as impressing elsewhere with their pulsating match with Everton shortly before New Year. It’s quickly becoming noted that Stoke are playing some of the best football in the league, and while a lot of this is down to the attacking triumvirate of Bojan Krkic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic, Stoke’s departure from the long ball football which dominated the Pulis years has been a constant theme throughout Hughes’ tenure at the Britannia.
Stoke have indeed finished both of the previous two seasons strongly, with point tallies post-Christmas in both 13/14 and 14/15 being enough to be considered as European contenders, but with a weak opening to the season letting them down. This is perhaps the biggest change at Stoke this season and one which Johnson’s experience has allowed them to avoid; while an opening day loss against Liverpool may have started a winless run of six games to begin the season, Hughes’ men have quickly recovered to a comfortable mid-table position with exactly half of their games played, not too far from the European race and ready to attack the run-in in 2016.
Johnson has bedded in comfortably to a back four boasting a seasoned Premier League pair in Ryan Shawcross and Erik Pieters, with former Leverkusen man Philipp Wollscheid also involved and beginning to get used to Premier League football. Playing the experienced Johnson is a clear upgrade on last season’s solutions at right back, namely a sub-par Phil Bardsley or an out-of-position Geoff Cameron, and Stoke’s defence has been marginally less leaky, conceding only nineteen goals after nineteen games (compared to 23 at this point last season). However, as a full back Johnson clearly has to also add to the attacking play; this is a task he has taken with aplomb, with the attacking side of his game perhaps being one of the key facets of his game which took him to two top clubs in Chelsea and Liverpool.
With three assists, and having forged a strong role in the attacking style of Stoke – evidenced in that he’s created fifteen goalscoring opportunities this season in total – Johnson can only be seen as a successful signing in both a defensive and attacking sense. This is a notable increase on his tally at Liverpool last season, but having been marginalised in previous manager Brendan Rodgers, the figures don’t tell the whole story: Johnson had, in previous years at Liverpool, created to about the extent to which he is currently creating at Stoke, with 28 goalscoring opportunities created in 13/14 and 46 in 12/13.
This begs the question: was Johnson ever actually a bad player? The flak he received at Liverpool seems to have affected his reputation somewhat but when looking at the statistics it seems misplaced – Stoke look notably stronger with Johnson in the side, and Liverpool have been frail defensively in recent years, especially since Johnson was marginalised. It certainly holds true that players at larger clubs tend to have much more scrutiny heaped upon their performances and, in underperforming Liverpool and England sides for the best part of the past few years, Johnson probably came in for stick which a similar player at a smaller club might not normally receive.
This scenario probably fits best at Liverpool to goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. Mignolet impressed over a few years at Sunderland, at one point being touted as one of the league’s best goalkeepers, but increased scrutiny at Anfield have painted a different, maybe not exactly false either, picture of the Belgian as a player. The most celebrated spells of Johnson’s career have come at previous club Portsmouth, where he finally established himself as a starter in the Premier League and as a consistent England international (having been originally capped while still a teenager at West Ham and Chelsea), and of course now at Stoke.
Free from being a scapegoat for a top club and his country, it’s no surprise that continuing to play football at a high level, perhaps even picking up in the short term after an injury hit year on the margins at Anfield last season, will draw the plaudits Johnson deserves. Lengthy spells at Chelsea, Portsmouth and Liverpool, as well as becoming Gary Neville’s proper successor at right back following the Manchester United stalwart’s international retirement, certainly paint a picture of Johnson as the player that is receiving praise for his impact on an impressive Stoke side, and not that of a liability at Liverpool.
This season may have begun for Stoke and their new signing Glen Johnson with defeat to Liverpool, but with two legs of a Capital One Cup semi-final to come against the former West Ham youth’s old charges, and Stoke beginning to really gun for a European place – putting them in direct competition with Liverpool – Johnson may have the last laugh at his old employers’ expense yet.
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