Since that damning assessment, Johnson has upped his game and current Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish has selected the England star regularly. Indeed, the 27-year-old turned out to be the Merseysiders’ hero at the weekend, after his superb solo goal against former club Chelsea earned the Reds a welcome 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge.
If there is one Liverpool player who divides opinion however, then it is Johnson. One major criticism of the defender is that he is suspect at the back. Many fans believe that Johnson’s positional play is poor and that he gets caught out too easily when facing a crafty winger. The former Portsmouth player also lags behind the likes of Jose Enrique when it comes to tackling – Johnson has successfully completed 63% of his tackles this season, compared to Enrique’s 86%. While the criticisms are valid to an extent – Johnson does sometimes struggle when defending for both club and country – there is another aspect to his game that truly delights supporters.
Johnson’s rampaging runs down the right-hand side offer Liverpool a superb additional threat out wide when they are on the break. He often bombs forward to provide his attacking teammates with support and when he receives the ball he is more than capable of going on a mazy run or whipping in a cross. Indeed, he full-back is so convincing when going forward that some fans occasionally ask: ‘Why doesn’t he play as a right winger?’
Both Dalglish and Fabio Capello have resisted the temptation to use Johnson as a midfielder, but with the emergence of some terrific right-backs at Liverpool and England, it would be interesting to see whether they stick to their principles. Dalglish has already tested Johnson out at left-back in some games last season, where he played quite well. He may be used in that position again should Enrique pick up an injury.
The question for now is: how can Dalglish solve his selection headache for the right-back position? Youngster Martin Kelly has been excellent when called upon this season and has made five Premier League appearances this term – the same number as Johnson. Yet Kelly has made twice as many tackles, more than twice as many clearances and three times as many blocks as Johnson. Does he deserve to be Liverpool’s number one right-back?
One solution could be to allow Kelly to play in his natural position at centre-back. Even then he would be limited to a small number of appearances due to Liverpool’s quality in that area. The battle between Johnson, Kelly and even Jon Flanagan will be an interesting one for the remainder of the campaign.
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