The Mystery Of Adam Johnson

By David Mooney, Wed 25 July 2012 17:49

The Mystery Of Adam Johnson

All good myths should follow the same pattern. They begin with a few murmurings by a couple of people and, before you know it, the whole thing has snowballed out of control, there's mass hysteria and, more often than not, the Daily Mail is involved somewhere or other. In this case, thankfully, they're not embroiled in it, but the myth has quickly gained momentum like the rumours of a  football's extra-marital affair with [[SENTENCE DELETED DUE TO LIBEL ERROR]].

This one concerns City's left footed, right winger: Adam Johnson. I appreciate at this point I'm going to divide a lot of fans. Not literally, I should point out, I'm not going to be slicing anybody in two. Not today, at any rate (sorry to disappoint). But what I am going to say is probably going to go against the grain for many blues: Adam Johnson is not as bad as a lot of fans would have you believe.

And, yes, I have watched every game he played last season (with the exception of the 3-3 draw with Sunderland because I didn't get in from work in time to get to the ground). For the record, I don't think he had the best season, either; I actually think he was poor, but he was by no means as bad as a lot of fans seem to think.

A rather unscientific poll on my Twitter account this week produced the result of 89% of the sample of fans who replied to me expressed the opinion that he's not good enough for City's first team.  Most said his attitude was poor, he doesn't make a big enough contribution to the team and his workrate wasn't as high as it should be for a top level team. Just over 2% said he looked the spitting image of Ian Curtis.

As the myth goals, he only ever scores 'unimportant' goals (however, when you've won the league on goal difference, I'd maintain every goal was a necessity). He's the man that joins the action from the bench when the game is safe and scores a good effort to make it a five rather than a four goal winning margin. He doesn't come looking for the ball. He's often not involved in games for large spells, sometimes without even touching the ball.

I can't argue with his lack of influence in most of the games he appeared in – he seems to be a shadow of the man who was beating full-backs at will and running at defenders with speed when he first arrived. In fact, in the whole of the last season, I remember him doing it twice: Once to set up Balotelli at home to Bolton and the other to 'win' a penalty against Fulham (and by 'win', I mean dive, because he made sure he connected with the defender and, no matter what commentators will have you believe “contact” doesn't “entitle a player to go down” - it's a contact sport). But after that: Nothing. Zip. Zilch.

This could be false data, though. Both of the times I remember his runs have resulted in goals; perhaps my memory has edited out the ones that led to nothing at all. In the same way, they say it often feels like years pass by much quicker when we're older – do they feel like that or are we just doing more stuff our memory decides to chop out of the final edit (mundane things like work)?

Anyway, back to the football.

The goals accusation is a little harsh. Here are the games that he netted in last season and the score that his goal made the game: Blackburn (a, 1-0); Aston Villa (h, 2-0); Wolves (a, 1-1); Wolves (h, 3-1); Norwich (h, 5-1); Stoke (h, 2-0) and Norwich (a, 6-1). Seven assists (in all competitions) then need to be added to those seven goals to make up his 2011-12 stats. On the face of it, not a huge contribution from an attacking player, but a little bit more in-depth review says that conclusion could be a tad unfair.

Competitively, he started just 16 games and came on as a substitute in 21 more, featuring in a total of 37 of a possible 54 matches. He actually missed more games than he started. Four of his seven goals came in games he started, not when he came on as an impact substitute. Looking deeper, when coming on as a sub, he played less than 20 minutes in 13 of his 21 games. He was on the pitch for 1566 of a possible 4860 minutes. When averaged out, that becomes a goal or an assist every 112 minutes.

By way of a comparison, Sergio Aguero made 41 goals or assists in all competitions last season, playing 3470 minutes: Giving him a goal or an assist ever 85 minutes. Not a huge amount of difference, given that, for a fair few of Johnson's substitute appearances, City were in the process of killing off the game, rather than looking to get in front.

All of this, however, raises the question: Why doesn't Adam Johnson get more game time if, statistically, he's not too far behind someone who had a brilliant first season in the league? He puts in important goals, provides important assists with little game time, yet he barely seems to get a look in.

And it's a funny situation because most fans, myself included, would have expected he'd contributed a lot less to the season than he has. It doesn't feel like he does that much when he's on the pitch. He doesn't seem to influence the game, he doesn't seem to be a threat for City and he doesn't seem like he touches the ball all that often. It just turns out that, when he does, he's not as wasteful as we thought.

But therein lies the problem. By having a player who's not involved for large spells of the game, the team are, effectively, playing with a man down. Ok, so he's still somebody that needs marking and he still performs his defensive responsibilities – something which he has improved since Roberto Mancini publicly criticised. But his strength is having the ball at his feet, running at defenders and being dangerous in and around the opposition's penalty area, yet he might only do that once every 30 minutes.

The very best football teams are greater than the sum of their parts. That's to say, when every part of the machine is playing to the best of their ability, if you were somehow able to quantify that and add it up, that total would be lower than the overall performance rating of the team. In other words, David's needlessly overcomplicating a very simple metaphor. Again.

The problem City are facing is that, when Adam Johnson's in the team, he presents something of an optical illusion. An anomaly. He's providing the results more regularly than expected, but he's not putting in good performances and hasn't put in a top class performance for a long time. With him on the pitch, it often feels like the team isn't greater than the sum of its parts because he far too frequently represents a void that isn't being filled.

And this may seem like I'm being critical of him, but I don't want it to be as harsh as it may be coming across. I like him; I think he's a good, dangerous player on his day. I think he's not been given a decent chance to be that player in a long time, with a few fleeting appearances from month to month.

He's got a lot of potential – and I don't mean that in the way that word is often used. I don't mean that he could be a brilliant player in three or four years when he has more experience; I'm not talking about long-term potential. Rather, I mean he could be a brilliant player next week. He has the potential to take on three men and beat them and he has the potential to do it right now, he just hasn't lived up to that for 18 months.

He's not helped that City's style of play doesn't necessarily lend itself to a tricky winger. The blues like to keep possession, move the ball quickly and drag their opponents all over the pitch. The attacking players tend to like to swap positions and move around to get their opposition's defence all over the place, and that's not particularly helpful to the man who wants to hug the touchline and make jinking runs in and out of the full-back position. But that doesn't mean there isn't room for him in the system; Roberto Mancini has built a flexible team to be able to change it around when necessary.

The sad thing is, Adam Johnson is probably living on borrowed time. He has the ability, he has provided better than he gets credit for, but we haven't seen his best in far too long.

If I was the manager, would I sell him? Well, yes, providing a good offer came along. However, I wouldn't be seeking to remove him from the books; he still has a lot to offer City and we don't need to sell him for selling sake.

Even so, next season I'd like to see the Adam Johnson that City signed, rather than the one that's been pulling on the blue shirt for the last 18 months. Now's the time for him to step it up and start putting in the performances. His chances are getting fewer and far between; if he doesn't do it soon, his opportunity will have passed.

I disagree that he's not good enough for City's team, I think he is.

But only when he's playing well.