FOR Liverpool FC fans there was an interesting footnote to the spree of arson and looting which took place in parts of the city early last week.
In a commendable if largely tokenistic move, Liverpool and Everton jointly released statements from senior players and management calling for a halt to the disturbances.
Representing the blue half of the city, Phil Neville, Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka were quoted alongside David Moyes, while for the Reds Kenny Dalglish, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Glen Johnson all at least put their names to some worthy sentiments.
Johnson’s inclusion is an interesting one. Of course it seems obvious both clubs wanted to put forward English players as mouthpieces, but we’re hardly short of those at the moment. Maybe Glen’s London roots played a part in the decision, or perhaps the press officer managed to get hold of him ahead of Andy Carroll or Jordan Henderson.
Whatever the background, it was encouraging to see Johnson up there alongside the club’s senior professionals. Some have questioned Liverpool’s commitment to holding on to the full-back given the emergence of Martin Kelly, Jon Flanagan and Jack Robinson and the recruitment of Jose Enrique last week.
Johnson’s elevation to the spokesman’s role is perhaps a miniscule hint that the attitude within the club is that he’s very much a key man. Based on Saturday’s game that looks a wholly justified position.
The national media may be fixated with another LFC absentee from the draw with Sunderland, but Johnson’s loss was keenly felt in both halves as some of Flanagan’s limitations (at this stage in his career) were exposed.
Let’s make it clear: towards the back end of last season Flanagan was a revelation. Combative, steady and committed, the young man looked the part in virtually every game he played.
Against Sunderland Flanno, selected ahead of Martin Kelly and with Johnson not quite fit, looked initally to have picked up where he left off. For 45 minutes he was a model of composure and diligence, though in truth he was rarely tested by a Sunderland side swamped by Liverpool’s high-tempo start to the game.
After the break the tide turned, both for Liverpool collectively and for Flanagan individually.
Pass after pass went astray in the midfield, Suarez tired and Sunderland’s remodelled system paid off. Flanagan began to suffer under pressure from Seb Larsson, elementary errors creeping in to the youngster’s game as the side’s performance levels waned.
To Flanno’s credit he never stopped looking for the ball or joining in the play, even as his confidence was visibly draining. We can hope and expect this to be a vital learning experience for him and not the kind of setback which many feel Stephen Darby suffered after travails against Fiorentina in 2009.
Darby, having seemingly been on the brink of a major breakthrough, has slipped down the pecking order and will spend the season on loan at Rochdale. The excellent Rochdale blogger @girlonaterrace tells me Darby has looked impressive thus far at Spotland, but Flanno can expect plenty more chances at Anfield before anything so drastic as a loan move is countenanced.
Flanagan is certainly not a bad player, and may in time be a very good one, but he isn’t yet the finished article. Nor should he be – a footballer without room for improvement at the age of 18 is likely to be found out by rival players and managers pretty quickly.
While the second half was a difficult one for Flanagan, even in the first it is tempting to speculate what might have been had Liverpool had Johnson raiding down the right and combining with Henderson as profitably as the impressive left-sided duo of Downing and Enrique.
At the moment, particularly in eminently winnable home games, Liverpool will look for cohesion and balance. Johnson offers both. Few can argue Glen is anything other than a thoroughbred footballer.
Quick, strong and exciting, on his day he is a constant thorn in the side of opposing defences, yet for many fans there is always a caveat with Johnson.
The idea has grown up that Glen ‘can’t defend’. You hear it from Liverpool supporters all the time, and from the England hordes if you’re brave/stupid enough to listen to 6-0-6 after another anaemic display from the international side.
There is the germ of a kernel of a smidgen of truth in the claim. Clearly, Johnson is no Tony Hibbert, competently marshalling about 20 square yards but offering little else to the team. His style of play and the attributes he draws on demand that he takes more risks than some, leaving him open to accusations of defensive laxity.
It’s a gross over-exaggeration and in many ways appears influenced by what are actually positive qualities. Because Johnson plays a role in trying to help win matches rather than just averting defeat, he’s portrayed as careless and ungainly at the back.
Johnson’s sometimes caught out of position, but his pace and short-burst acceleration are vital assets in making recovery challenges. He can cross from deep or from the byline and has an eye for goal both inside the box, as we saw against West Ham at Anfield last season, and from rather further out (see below).
Last season Glen showed his versatility, switching to left-back to plug a gap in resources which now appears to have been filled handsomely by Enrique. This term we should expect a fit Johnson to start as first choice for club and country, though both Kelly and Flanagan will be fighting hard to dislodge him. It’s a healthy picture for Dalglish and Liverpool.
On Twitter Glen comes across as thoughtful and intelligent, a fan of HBO box sets and football from around the world (a relatively rare interest among English footballers, many of whom prefer playing as/with themselves on FIFA to learning from their peers). As Neil Atkinson has pointed out, Johnson won plenty of brownie points round here with his righteous indignation at criticism from all-purpose hypocrite-for-hire Paul Merson.
As he grows in seniority within the squad the already experienced 26-year-old might well improve further still, and his pace and power could help prolong the career of Carragher in a balanced back four.
However the season turns out for him, getting the best out of Glen Johnson should be very close to the top of Kenny’s list of priorities.