As England conclude their qualifying campaign and look forward to Euro 2012 Daniel Morehead looks at a problem area that could well spell further heartbreak on the big stage.
The dismissal of Wayne Rooney grabbed the headlines in Podgorica, but the worrying fact is England had little to be optimistic about even before the prospect of their best striker missing up to three matches in the finals.
In truth, England’s right hand side has been found lacking for many years, with no natural replacements for David Beckham and Gary Neville cementing the positions full time.
At right back Danny Mills performed impressively during the 2002 World Cup, but that was to be the high point of his career. Wes Brown would feature sporadically and inconsistently – much as he would do for Manchester United. In 2005, 18 year old Micah Richards became England’s youngest ever defender upon his debut versus the Netherlands, going on to earn a further 11 caps. But a loss of form at club level and a new coach at international saw Richards fall out of favour and is still to earn a cap under the latest England manager.
Under Capello, Glen Johnson became first choice, continuing in this position for 10/11 despite his club manager moving him to the left hand side in order to give youth prospects Jon Flanagan and Martin Kelly the right full-back berth. Johnson’s attacking abilities have never been in doubt, with the player occasionally being utilised on the wing for Liverpool, but defensively he has been found out at the top level.
There are few players in the Premier League with the level of hype surrounding Phil Jones right now.
In the final two qualifiers for Euro 2012, Capello used Manchester United men – and primarily centre-backs – Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in the right-back position. Speaking of Smalling, Capello said ‘the four games that he’s played at right-back, he’s played really well’. Phil Jones was then handed the starting responsibility in Montenegro, in what would be the fourth game of his senior career in that role. Unsurprisingly, both gave shaky performances, with Jones in particular struggling with the movement of Jovetic. We have seen countless players in good form for their clubs struggle to replicate their form on the international stage, but it is simply unfair to ask players who are relative novices in that position to perform to a high standard. Smalling and Jones have looked an effective central partnership at U21 level, but without further experience – a lot of it – they should not be called upon at right back for their country again. Jones has racked up an impressive 556 minutes for United this season, but only 270 minutes as a full back.
There are few players in the Premier League with the level of hype surrounding Phil Jones right now, but he has looked suspect defensively, which so far has only cost United points in the Champions League. His foraging runs forward have earned him many plaudits, but he must learn to utilise these attacking urges in an efficient way which will not prove detrimental to the defensive elements of his game, as ultimately, that is what he is there for; the first goal for Montenegro stemming from the ball flying loose as Jones bombed forward. His day nearly became worse when Jovetic was felled in the area on 53 minutes, only for referee Wolfgang Stark to wave play on – whilst the country collectively had their hearts in mouths. It was a baptism of fire, and one not without its warning signals. In the three games Jones has played at right back domestically, the opposition has fired an average of 17.6 shots on goal.
If we compare the last games of the three right backs in the squad – Jones at home to Norwich, Richards at home to Everton and Walker at home to Arsenal – we can see that the two natural full backs have a greater tendency to hog the touchline; while Jones is more inclined to wander inside. This positional indiscipline can be ironed out, but not in the short space of time he was afforded before being plunged into international duty.
The fact Richards made the squad for the first time under Capello represents progress, as the Italian has so far overlooked his impressive return to form. Under Roberto Mancini (plus a heavy dose of influence from Patrick Vieira) Richards has developed into one of the league’s leading full backs. Eliminating the lapses of concentration which blighted his early career; Richards has contributed 477 minutes and 2 assists towards Manchester City’s title assault.
Question marks remain over the solidity of Walker, although the defensive side of his game has certainly improved following loan spells at QPR and Aston Villa. It is a big season for the youngster, with EURO 2012 looming and Spurs seeking a Champions League return. He has already notched 405 minutes with his solitary goal coming against Arsenal.
The right wing position has proved just as troublesome as full-back, with it seeming like a lifetime ago when –currently Championship midfielder – David Bentley was touted as Beckham’s long term successor. Walcott appears to be the preferred right option in Capello’s new look 4-2-3-1; but is a flaky, speed-merchant truly the best England has to offer?
Alan Hansen infamously gave a scathing assessment of Walcott in the Match Of The Day analysis of a hat-trick and man of the match performance versus Blackpool.
“It is no slight on a player to accuse them of not having a football brain. You either have one or you don’t… But it is not as simple as going out on the training pitch and practising every day. It is about instinct. There is no thought process when you have a football brain, you just see it and play it, so that’s why it is so difficult to add that to your game if you don’t have that natural instinct.”
In last weekend’s north London derby, Walcott passed the ball just 12 times in the 72 minutes he was on the pitch, reaching his target with only 7. Whilst his team may struggle for points, Walcott does not struggle for minutes as he has already notched up 469 PL minutes, but only providing 1 goal and 1 assist.
His rivals for this position have not set the league alight themselves, however.
Adam Johnson has seemingly developed a reputation from non-Manchester City fans as being a brilliant, tricky winger, from the ten minute highlights shown every Saturday night. Unfortunately, he has not progressed as expected following his initial six month burst into City life, with limited effectiveness when given starting opportunities. Squad rotation has meant Johnson has played just 262 minutes so far, scoring 1 goal and providing 1 assist.
Stuart Downing has forced himself back into the England fray after an impressive 10/11 and a big-money move to Liverpool. His limited time on Merseyside has been met with varying degrees of success. With Dalglish starting the season with Jordan Henderson playing right and Downing left, the two were often invited to swap wings over the course of a match. However, after back to back losses -1-0 away to Stoke and 4-0 away to Tottenham – Downing has exclusively occupied the left-hand side of the pitch.
With the current wing options not finding top form, it represents a huge opportunity for Swansea’s Nathan Dyer to catch Capello’s eye as Swansea settle into Premier League life. Reminiscent of Shaun Wright-Phillips in his early pomp, Dyer is enjoying an impressive PL debut season and is key to the Swans’ survival hopes, clocking in 561 minutes and scoring once for the so far goal-shy side.
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