GLEN Johnson’s injury may not be as bad as first feared but his absence is still a blow to Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
The right-back has been ruled out for a number of weeks following a high ankle sprain sustained in the home game against Manchester United. Initially it was thought that the England international could miss as much as 10 weeks of action due to the injury. That initial prognosis has been revised and recent reports indicate that he should be back in around half the time.
While that is positive news for the Reds, Johnson’s absence is still sure to be felt at Anfield. The fullback is often maligned for his lack of defensive solidity (somewhat unfairly in my opinion) but the quality of his attacking play has never been in question. It is that ability to maraud forward that Liverpool will miss most over the coming weeks.
Johnson is a key component in Brendan Rodgers’ set up. He is Liverpool’s only fullback who is completely at ease in the final third of the pitch and is a regular attacking weapon for his side. His quality and calmness on the ball are key ingredients in Liverpool’s set up and his ability to patrol the entire right side of the pitch for Liverpool at times is particularly important.
On the opposite flank, fellow fullback Jose Enrique is a solid defensive player but lacks the subtlety and technique of Johnson and as a result, Liverpool’s attacking threat from fullback is often somewhat lopsided. The Reds rely heavily on their right-back. Johnson’s ability to overlap or indeed, cut inside and penetrate from a central area, is a recurring theme in Liverpool’s attacking style. He plays very high up the pitch and joins in with a great number of Liverpool’s attacks despite nominally being a defender. Liverpool repeatedly count on his ability to build attacks down that right flank and his absence should not be underestimated.
His likely replacement during his time on the sidelines will like be Andre Wisdom. The young defender is a promising talent but his natural position is centre-half. While he is robust and very quick, Wisdom does not posses the quality on the ball of Johnson and Liverpool’s attacking play will likely suffer as a result. Wisdom has deputised at right-back several times already and has done a steady but unspectacular job. It’s hard to criticise him or not being as good going forward as Johnson as he is a centre-half by trade, but his limitations in the attacking side of the game will blunt Liverpool’s threat and that is a cause for concern if he is to fill in at right-back for a prolonged period.
The emphasis on Johnson to get forward from right-back is huge at Liverpool and with no like for like replacement to step in, it will be interesting to see how the Reds cope in his absence. Right-back in not often seen as a key position in football, but in a Brendan Rodgers side it is of paramount importance. Perhaps Rodgers will adjust his side’s style of play slightly with Johnson unavailable and encourage his team to play more through the centre of the park. Bringing Philippe Coutinho into his favoured number 10 role from his current position on the left wing could aid that stylistic change. Another option which may be considered is switching to a three at the back formation.
With a plethora of centre-halves now in their ranks, Liverpool could look to use a system that allows them to play an extra player at the heart of their defence. The problem with that is that Johnson would be their ideal candidate for the right wing-back position in such a system. Jordan Henderson could be another potential option for such a role, especially as he has outstanding stamina and did a good job in a similar position away to Blackburn Rovers when Kenny Dalglish was still in charge. That said, while many anticipate that Rodgers will experiment at some stage with three centre-backs on the field, it is more likely that he will do so when Johnson is available again rather than when he is out injured.
However Rodgers chooses to set up his team over the next few weeks, make no mistake that Glen Johnson’s absence will be felt. He may be under-appreciated by many outside of Liverpool due to his perceived defensive lapses but Liverpool will struggle to be as effective as a team without him.
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