England must get it Right at the Back

Euro 2012 is fast approaching and as is usual for the English national team the build-up is looking far from ideal. There are a host of issues that need to be dealt with before the squad jets off to Poland and Ukraine in June. Not least of those problems is who is going to be the man picking that squad? Harry Redknapp was and remains the favourite but it is now emerging that senior figures in the FA have reservations over the man. Once that situation has been resolved, there will then remain a number of questions to be answered. Who will be captain? Should John Terry be in the squad? Who’s going to play upfront while Rooney serves his suspension?

Another position that appears up for grabs is the right back slot. At least in this position, unlike upfront, the eventual manger will have a number of quality options to choose from. Against Holland, due to the withdrawal of his main rivals, Micah Richards will get a chance to lay a marker down to claim the role for himself.

Richards burst into the England set-up at just 18, at the time of making his debut he’d only played 28 senior matches for Manchester City. Micah was immediately marked out as a man who could dominate the right back position for a decade and more. However due to fluctuating form and being in and out of favour at City, Richards has only added 11 caps in the past 5 years. Fabio Capello left many puzzles behind as he departed England but one of the biggest is why Richards hadn’t been given a chance over the past 12 months or so. The last year has seen Richards hit the best form of his career, adding maturity and intelligent positioning to his undoubted power and energy game. He has been one of the key performers in a City side that lead the way in the Premier League and the way Capello overlooked him was questioned by all but the staunchest United fans.

Stuart Pearce knows Richards better than most, having managed him at City and for the England Under-21’s and was quick to call him up for the Holland friendly. Even before Kyle Walker and Glen Johnson had withdrawn, it seemed certain that Micah would get his chance.

Glen Johnson was the man that Capello turned to at right back for much of his reign. However talented Johnson is going forward, he still at times, at the highest level looks a defensive liability. Much of Capello’s dependence on Johnson was due to a perceived lack of options. With Capello seemingly oblivious to Micah Richards talents there really weren’t many other options worth looking at for England. So much so that even when Johnson spent a spell at left back for Liverpool he was still the only real choice for Capello on the right for the Three Lions.

This season however has seen – along with Richards – a trio of candidates step forward and throw their hat in the ring to secure a spot for the European Championships and beyond.

The first of these is also the only true right back, Tottenham Hotspur’s Kyle Walker has emerged as a powerhouse defender with tremendous pace and a maturity beyond his 21 years. Walker was one of the few England Under-21’s to emerge from the 2011 Euro Championships with any credit, making it into the team of the tournament despite England’s first round exit. From that point on he has gone from strength to strength, firstly seeing off the challenge of Vedran Corluka as Spurs first choice right back then going on to breaking into the full England squad. Walker made his first start for England against Sweden and put on a masterclass to claim the man of the match award on his full debut. While his manager Harry Redknapp may not be too disappointed, Walker will be gutted that he’s had to pull out of the Holland friendly with an ankle injury. He will have been determined to continue where he left off against Sweden in the hope of cementing at least a squad role for England this summer.

The final two challengers both come from Manchester United and are really centre backs. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have both featured for United and England as full backs this season. Both have performed well when called upon, with Jones in particular looking as much an offensive threat as he has strong in defence. Both will have strong claims for the final squad for the summer and their versatility may well be a strong factor in the decision to take them.

Conventional footballing wisdom however suggests that positional specialists should be favoured when it comes to the starting roles. If the new man in the England hot seat agrees then it will surely be a straight shoot-out between Richards, Walker and Johnson with those three most likely fighting over two slots. Johnson may well be the most effective going forward but neither Richards nor Walker is a slouch in that department and both are far superior defensively. For me that should mean Micah and Kyle boarding the plane in the summer, yet I have a nagging suspicion that whoever lands the England job may favour Johnson’s experience; with Walker the most likely to miss out if that is the case.

Whoever is chosen, it is at least encouraging that there is one position that has such strength in depth. If only there were as many top class options up front to cause the new England manager headaches!

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