Glen Johnson Exclusive: Southgate “Right” to Pick Mount over Grealish

Following the weekend’s clash between title hopefuls Liverpool and Manchester City, former Liverpool and Chelsea right-back Glen Johnson spoke exclusively with The former England international, who also played for Portsmouth, named Liverpool as favourites for this year’s title but believes that Chelsea will close the gap next season. He also pointed to a bright future at Anfield, naming their academy, along with Arsenal’s, as the best of the ‘big six’. Johnson spoke highly of Trent Alexander-Arnold and his potential to become an ‘all-time great’ and tipped club legend and former teammate Steven Gerrard to succeed Jürgen Klopp as Liverpool manager.

DB: What did you make of the Liverpool vs City game yesterday? 

GJ: First half they looked like two fantastic sides, but performing at that level takes it out of you physically so we saw them both tail off a little and settle for a draw. They’ve been the best two teams in the league for some time, we thought last year and this year it’d be a two-horse race with the other big three looking to close the gap, but I don’t think that’s doable in one season.

DB: Manchester City were way off Liverpool’s points tally last season in the league and have already dropped nine points in their first seven games this season. They seemed unbeatable in their Centurion season, why do you think we see more teams taking points from them in recent times?

GJ: It’s mainly down to the fact that the Etihad is an easier place to play for away teams in terms of having no fans and less pressure, so to speak. These teams have got nothing to lose and are performing slightly better. Also, City have big-name players that play in the biggest competitions, but they thrive off pressure from the crowd and it helps raise their game. I know they’re professionals and naturally will want to perform out of their skin every week, but they’re human, sometimes you need that little rocket behind you, or a reminder from the crowd to get them going. I think without the fans, they’re not at full tilt, so everyone goes there and performs better, it’s just an easier place to play at the moment.

DB: Losing Virgil van Dijk is a huge blow to Liverpool this season. How do you feel they’ve coped without him and having seen the impact of his absence, do you think he’s Liverpool’s most important player?

GJ: Certainly when it comes down to the big games, like the Champions League and games at the top of the Premier League for sure. He’s a name on the sheet that the big boys won’t want to face. But with the players Liverpool have got they’re more than capable of dealing with some of the so-called easier games. But so far I think they’ve dealt OK without him, but of course, any top team is going to miss their best players.

DB: Joe Gomez formed a solid partnership with van Dijk last season, conceding the least goals in the league. Can Joe Gomez help lead this Liverpool defence to back to back titles?

GJ: I think he’s a fantastic player but there’s no doubt about it, Van Dijk was the man pulling the strings. For Gomez to step up to that is going to be a huge ask, but he’s a fantastic player with an opportunity to show everyone that he can do that.

DB: Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams have stepped in and played a part in some good results in the league and in Europe. Along with Curtis Jones and Trent Alexander-Arnold, there’s a strong academy presence in the squad these days. How do you think their youth prospects compare to some of the other ‘big six’ teams?

GJ: Yeah they’re certainly doing the right thing and certainly up there. Arsenal are another club who are doing great with young development, with Nketiah, Saka, Nelson and a couple of others. I’d have to say between the top six, it’s either Arsenal or Liverpool that are looking the best with academy prospects. 

DB: Injuries have troubled Liverpool early on, Trent went down yesterday, Alisson missed a few games already as well as defensive options such as VVD and Matip. Thinking ahead to January can you anticipate Liverpool bringing in new players, in these positions?

GJ: It’s a tough one, but Trent’s injury is a little calf strain that doesn’t look to be too serious and players are harder to bring in as cover for shorter-term injuries. If you’re a full-back or centre-half going into Liverpool now, you know the only reason you’re going is as a short-term solution and when the big boys are back, you won’t play. It’s hard to bring the right calibre of player in for the short-term. But you never know, maybe a couple of loan players could be an option, or see how well the young players develop. 

DB: Another crucial part of this team is captain Jordan Henderson. Along with Divock Origi, he’s the only member of the squad who remains from your spell at the club. He received a lot of criticism early on in his Liverpool career but has really turned things around now. What did you make of him when you were at the club and what do you think has changed for Henderson?

GJ: Me and Hendo got on from day one. We get on personally and obviously, professionally we got on very well too. When he came to Liverpool he was still a young kid learning his trade in the game. Of course, there was room for improvement, but with the mentality and attitude, Hendo’s got he was always going to improve and become a top Liverpool player. When you sign for a top team like Liverpool, everyone’s under the microscope, every single player and only the best ones survive. I think he’s come out of his shell and grown into the player that everyone thought he could be, now he’s proving who doubted him at the start wrong. 

DB: Liverpool have added some real quality to their midfield with their summer signing Thiago. With Liverpool creating predominantly through the fullbacks, often bypassing the midfield, do you think he’s a good fit for Liverpool’s style of play?

GJ: I do. Last season their three front men were carrying the side in terms of goals, but you can’t rely on that consistently all throughout the year. For a player like Thiago, or even someone in the past like Coutinho, a player who can score and create from midfield gives another threat for the other team to neutralise. I certainly think they need to get more goals from midfield, and whether Thiago actually scores them or not, I certainly think he’ll play a role in a lot of goals. 

DB: Another one of Liverpool’s midfielders, Georginio Wijnaldum is coming to the end of his contract – it expires in July 2021. He’s had some huge moments for the club, who have an embarrassment of riches in midfield now with Thiago coming in and Curtis Jones getting more game time. What do you think the best resolution is for club and player?

GJ: I think they need to keep him. I think he’s a fantastic footballer, he’s one of those all-round midfielders, great on the ball, not an out-and-out goalscorer, and not an out-and-out defender, so he’s one of those utility men in midfield who can play in any one of the three positions. And I think he’s a fantastic squad player and obviously, the experience he’s gained in the last few years is hard to replace.

DB: In addition to the midfielders I’ve mentioned already, Liverpool have Naby Keita, who came in with much expected of him after a big-money move and taking on the famous number eight shirt. He’s struggled with injuries of course but overall how do you assess his time at Liverpool so far? 

GJ: He’s probably not hit the ground running as people would have liked and obviously it’s a hard team to break into. Everyone thought he’d do better early on, but I still think he’s a fantastic player. I guess for him, when he next gets his opportunity, he needs to take it. No player really likes being a squad player, everyone likes to play. 

DB: Liverpool played a midfield pivot against City in a 4-4-2/4-2-4 and have fielded a 4-2-3-1 this season, much like Klopp’s Dortmund. But we’re most familiar with a three-man midfield in the 4-3-3. What do you think is Liverpool’s best midfield trio?

GJ: It depends on who you’re playing and what sort of formation you’re playing. But if I had to pick a three in a diamond, I’d probably go Hendo, Thiago and Fabinho. 

DB: The goals seem to have dried up a little for Firmino – he bagged 27 in all comps in 2017/18, the season they lost to Madrid in the CL final. He’s since scored 16, 12 and just one so far this season. What’s your assessment of his performances as of late?

GJ: That’s the great word there, I think his performances have been great — he just hasn’t been getting the goals. I think he links up, it’s almost like the way he plays is as an attacking midfielder rather than a striker. He does link the play up very well and the other guys do get a lot of goals because of him. A striker is always judged on their goals, but his performances are much better than what his goal ratio suggests. 

DB: Firmino is certainly a unique forward, playing in that false nine role, acting as a foil for Salah and Mane. We saw them both start yesterday, but how does the way Liverpool play change when Jota plays between the two wingmen instead of Firmino?

GJ: Well I think it depends on the opponent. Jota has obviously hit the ground running, he’s been fantastic and getting straight in there with the goals. He’s just a different threat to Firmino. It depends. If I’m playing against a team that has some room between the lines, then I’d pick Firmino. If I need someone who can create the goal individually, then I’d probably go for Jota. That’s the luxury of having that squad, you can pick and choose. They’re all going to get so many games that they can all get enough playing time. 

DB: Jota has made a great start, grabbing seven goals in his first 10 appearances – the first player to do so since Robbie Fowler. It would be hard to imagine anyone breaking up the famed Liverpool front three, but he certainly looks very sharp. Do you think Firmino’s place is in question?

GJ: No, I don’t think it’s in question. He offers something different. There’s probably no team in the world to have three strikers that are all banging in goals at the same time — if that was the case they’d be winning 5-0 every week. All strikers have a little cold patch and purple patches, that’s just the way it works. Kane and Son are probably the only two that score all the time, but that’s a two, not a three — you’re not going to get three strikers who keep doing it. So no, I don’t think his place is under threat at all, he just offers something different. 

DB: With Ronaldo and Messi seemingly at the tail end of their careers, the Ballon D’Or race has opened up a bit. Last season’s prize wasn’t awarded, but Lewandowski was certainly favourite. A Premier League player hasn’t won the Ballon D’Or since Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008. Do you think any of the Premier League’s players can win the award this season?

GJ: Yeah of course, I think they can. I don’t know who, though. Clearly, Messi and Ronaldo are going to be involved, but they’re not the players they were two to three years ago. Obviously, they’re still up there, but they’re not way out there like they were. Look, I just think the Premier League certainly has the ability for someone to win it, someone’s got to go quite deep into the Champions League, dominate a few performances, and for that to happen, realistically, you’re looking at a Liverpool or City player. 

DB: Looking ahead to the international matches, England’s squad for matches vs Ireland, Belgium and Iceland features Trent Alexander-Arnold, as well as Reece James, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker. It’s a nice problem for Southgate to have, but who do you think is England’s best option at right-back?

GJ: So I would say, overall, it’s a toss-up between Trent and Reece James. It depends on who you’re playing against of course, but I think Reece James is a better defender. I think he’s quicker, stronger. Trent is great on the ball, he’s a great footballer, and he’s very smart and a lot wiser than his age suggests. But in international football, you get a lot more time on the ball, so I think Trent would be number one, but Reece would be a fantastic backup.

DB: Sticking with Trent, he’s achieved so much at such a young age – he’s still only 22. What do you think the future holds for him? 

GJ: Well, I think whatever he wants. As long as he maintains the hunger and the passion to work and improve, I think he can become one of the all-time greats. Like you say, 22 is obviously still quite young, so he’s got plenty of time in his career, so I think it’s just a matter of managing that hunger. As long as he stays hungry and keeps that passion then he’ll be around for a very very long time.

DB: Looking at the heart of England’s defence – the World Cup 2018 standouts Maguire and Stones are struggling with form and out of favour respectively. Who do you think are England’s best centre-back options at the moment?

GJ: Well, right now, it’s gonna hurt me to say it but on form, you’d probably say Michael Keane. I don’t think Maguire is world-class at all. Stones, no. I think he can be, he just doesn’t concentrate.

DB: In terms of other options we have Dier, Gomez, Mings.

GJ: No, not Dier. Right now you’d probably say Gomez and Keane. 

DB: Looking at the midfield, there’s still some time to go before the squad starts to take shape. Curtis Jones made his England U21 debut in October, do you feel he is good enough to step up to the England senior side in time for EURO 2021?

GJ: No, I wouldn’t say he is yet. I think people are too quick to get these kids involved. People are getting their England debuts before they’ve even played in the Premier League, I think it’s bonkers. There’s a massive difference between under-21s to full squad. There’s a massive difference between the Championship, Premier League and Champions League. There’s a big difference in each one of those jumps, so I think players need to earn their stripes at that level, prove they can do it, shine at that level and then get their opportunity, not get chucked in because they’re young, good English players.

DB: Looking at someone who’s definitely earned their stripes, Jack Grealish has been in great form early on this season and is in the squad again. Southgate seems to prefer Mason Mount as the most advanced midfielder. James Maddison is another player who, despite great showings, has struggled to break into the side. Do you think there’s a certain profile of player that Southgate is looking for in this position?

GJ: Yeah, I think there is. I think it’s a good problem for Southgate to have, they’re three fantastic players. At the moment, I think he’s probably getting it right picking Mount. But look, in terms of what Grealish can do, of course, we’ve seen him in fantastic form, but it’s a difficult one. With Grealish, he’s Villa’s main man and loves being the main man, but when he goes to the England camp he’s not the main man. So he’s got to adapt the way he plays and when he learns to do that, then I think he’ll certainly climb the ladder in Southgate’s pecking order. 

DB: Many have branded this current crop of talent the new golden generation. Having been involved in the England set up with the previous golden generation, do you think this group of players has the potential to achieve more than England have in previous major competitions?

GJ: They say that every year don’t they! No, I don’t. As I said, it’s different levels. World Cup football is totally different to playing against Wales and Iceland in friendlies. It’s a totally different beast. Of course, they’ll look great, they’ll win these games. What England squad really struggles to qualify? They all qualify easily. Then the tournaments are different. In that era, you’re talking about Rio [Ferdinand], JT [John Terry], Gerrard, Lampard. You can’t say the best four now are better than those four. I don’t think that’s the case at all. They’re obviously fantastic young players and there’s a lot of time for them to improve. Hopefully, they do, because right now you wouldn’t have a solid bet in saying this generation is better.

DB: Two of the stars of that team, Lampard and Gerrard, have since gone into management. Now that Chelsea have spent big, expectations are higher. Do you think Lampard is the right man to lead this Chelsea side?

GJ: Yeah, I do. I think right now, the way the club’s going, he’s proven that he is. Everyone’s got to make the most of certain opportunities that are thrown their way. I think even Lamps would be surprised that he’s got the job so soon. With the club in the position they were, it was good for him and good for the club.  I think he’s earned his stripes early on, in terms of what he did with Jody [Morris] and using the youth. 18 months ago we didn’t know much about Mason Mount or Abraham and Reece James. They’ve brought all these players through, yes because of the ban, but they’ve still added massive assets to the club. Then obviously Roman believes in him and has given him the money to go and buy the players they’ve just bought.  In the league, who’s more in-form than them right now? I don’t think anyone is. They’ve scored what, 12 goals in the last four home games and five clean sheets. They’re certainly the team that are going to close the gap. I don’t think this will be the season to tip Liverpool or City, but Chelsea will certainly make it a three-horse race next year.

DB: At Gerrard’s former club, Jürgen Klopp’s contract runs to 2024. Four years is obviously a very long time in football. Do you feel Gerrard is a good candidate for the role if it becomes available in the future?

GJ: Yeah definitely. He’s Mr Liverpool, he loves the city in and out and he’s similar to Lamps, he’s got the right temperament for it. It’s one of those roles, where, with Liverpool doing so well, who would want to step into Klopp’s shoes when he leaves? It’s a difficult one, you kind of can’t win. It’s all about timing though, we have no idea what’s going to happen in four years time, but when the door does open if Gerrard thinks it’s the right time, I’m sure he’ll take the job

DB: Another ex-player managing his former club is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. His side have had a bad run of results as of late – United sit 14th in the table and they lost to Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League. The rumours of Pochettino taking the job are swirling, as they usually do when United are in poor form. What do you think the best long-term solution would be for the club?

GJ: One minute you look at United and think wow, they look like they’re unstoppable, but then they go and lose to a team that they should roll over easily. So for me, it can only be about the mentality of the players and someone reminding them that when you play the lower calibre teams, there are still three points available, as opposed to just getting up for the big games. At the end of last season, they were probably the best team to watch going forward, they were unbelievable. They’re nine out of 10 or two out of 10, and you can’t get in the top four doing that. Long-term, I don’t really know who their manager will be, but for them, I think they just need to get a bit more consistent.

DB: It’s been a somewhat unpredictable start to the season, with plenty of big teams dropping points already. Who do you think looks like the favourite to win the league at the moment? 

GJ: You have to say Liverpool. In terms of best odds, I’d go Liverpool, City then Chelsea.  

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