Have Pep, Jose and Jurgen arrived just in time to lift three of the country's finest defensive prospects? Max McLean investigates
England were lauded for their attacking potential when they arrived at Euro 2016, but their defensive deficiencies were widely predicted to be the cause of inevitable failure.
It transpired, however, that the Three Lions had fundamental problems all over the pitch and Roy Hodgson’s side were humiliated by Iceland in the last 16.
On paper at least, though, England’s biggest wory remains their defence. Having moved on from an era including the likes of Ashley Cole, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and John Terry, everywhere you look there are big shoes that remain unfilled.
What chance, then, that three of Europe’s most innovative managers might aid England’s regeneration? Here, we look at three players who could blossom under world-class club managers – much to Sam Allardyce's delight...
1. Nathaniel Clyne (Jurgen Klopp)
Clyne has developed into one of the country’s finest right-backs in the past few seasons, but he lost out to Kyle Walker when it came to England’s Euro 2016 campaign, and rightly so: the latter featured in one of Tottenham’s finest defensive seasons for years, contributing a goal and three assists in the process. Clyne managed just one goal and no assists during a turbulent Liverpool season.
Under Klopp, Clyne is once again taking more risks in attack. In turn, this led to his first Premier League assist for Liverpool
Having notched three league goals and nine assists in the three seasons before joining Liverpool, this lack of end product will have raised a few eyebrows – but Jurgen Klopp’s arrival could ensure it remains a blip, rather than a trend.
At Borussia Dortmund, Klopp nurtured one of Europe’s finest right-backs in Lukasz Piszczek, who from 2011/12 to 2013/14 managed nine goals and 18 assists in the Bundesliga thanks to Klopp’s swashbuckling style of play. Clyne could well be one of the main beneficiaries at Anfield.
Brendan Rodgers advocated a pressing game, but his key focus initially was to rebuild Liverpool much in the style of Arsenal: as possession-based ball gurus. Stats Zone perfectly illustrates the restrictive effect this had on Clyne, especially when considering Liverpool’s last two trips to the Emirates Stadium.
In last season’s 0-0 at the Emirates, under Rodgers, Clyne’s contribution was limited and he lacked adventure. The right-back completed just 17 passes, only seven of which were in the final third, with zero take-ons attempted. Skip forward almost exactly 12 months to Sunday’s 4-3 thriller at the Emirates, and the difference under Klopp is telling. Clyne completed 34 passes, 12 of those in the final third.
The former Southampton full-back also attempted two take-ons, and four long balls, compared to the zero he gambled with under Rodgers 12 months previously. Although none were successful, the point is that under Klopp, Clyne is once again taking more risks in attack. In turn, this led to his first Premier League assist for Liverpool, running at Nacho Monreal and crossing for Philippe Coutinho to score. Despite the adventure he was never wreckless, completing 100% of his backwards or sideways passes.
If Klopp can consistently increase Clyne’s output in the attacking third, he might well win his place back in England’s starting XI.
2. John Stones (Pep Guardiola)
By now, everyone knows how Pep likes to play football. Having learned the game in his playing days from one of the men who invented it, Johan Cruyff, the Catalan has adopted (and adapted) the Dutchman’s philosophy in his own teams.
Guardiola’s teams are lauded for their attacking output, but the 45-year-old’s defensive record is exceptional
John Stones, then, touted as one of the best ball-playing English centre-backs since Bobby Moore, couldn’t be in better company. The 22-year-old needs to be in an environment where his ballwork can be combined with the grit of a player like Jaap Stam, and while Guardiola’s teams are lauded for their attacking output, the 45-year-old’s defensive record is exceptional.
In the past three league seasons, Stones’s Everton conceded 144 league goals; Manchester City 116; Pep’s Bayern Munich just 58. In each of his four seasons at the Camp Nou, Barcelona conceded the fewest goals in La Liga.
So what will Pep do for Stones? Much can be deciphered from Marti Perarnau’s Pep Confidential, in which the author writes: “As a young player, Guardiola was already forming the football philosophy he would later implement so successfully as a coach; high-speed, attacking football as the best form of defence; effective passing and ball control, and as little hard tackling as possible.”
Pep doesn’t want an all-action, John Terry-style centre-back – he looks for the team as a whole to exert control. Using Stats Zone to look at Stones’s debut against Sunderland, Guardiola’s influence is already clear: the former Everton man was forced to make just two clearances, one interception and no tackles against David Moyes’s side. Manchester City hogged 77% possession, the highest figure of any Premier League side across the opening weekend.
Compare that to the hectic nature of Everton’s season opener in 2015, where, under the defensively naive Roberto Martinez, Stones had to make five clearances, four tackles and four interceptions in a 2-2 draw against Watford. Pep’s calming influence is already evident, and he simplifying Stones’s game.
Of course, passing is the key to Pep’s success, and once again Stones appears on the right track, with 70/78 completed against Sunderland. Where the Catalan coach might look to influence, however, is where Stones is comfortable operating.
According to Stats Zone, Stones made 17 passes in the defensive third, 51 in the middle third, and two in the attacking third against the Black Cats. This conforms to Guardiola’s desire to start play high up the pitch, but he will be looking for Stones to advance even further forward.
Consider Jerome Boateng’s performance at centre-back in Bayern’s season-opening 5-0 win against Hamburg last year: the German completed 80 passes, and attempted 15 in the attacking third, compared to Stones’s five. It will come in time; there is no manager better suited for him right now.
3. Chris Smalling (Jose Mourinho)
If you were to consider the successes of both Mourinho and Manchester United, you’d find one thing in common: winning teams founded on a bedrock of world-class defenders. From United’s Stam, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic to Jose’s Terry and Javier Zanetti, all have won Champions Leagues, and all enjoy legendary status.
The former Real Madrid boss will offer Smalling the gold standard in defensive tactics – and accept nothing less
As United and Mourinho collaborate, then, Smalling will never have a better chance to improve.
The centre-backs that litter Jose’s managerial career are a very different breed to those of his nemesis, Guardiola. While Pep’s centre-backs are essentially midfielders, Mourinho likes an all-action, heart-and-soul defender. When the Portuguese arrived at Stamford Bridge, Terry – who missed just four games in Mourinho’s three Premier League-winning campaigns – had six seasons under his belt at Chelsea, 110 league appearances and seven goals. At Manchester United, Smalling is at a very similar stage in his career, having racked up 135 league appearances and six goals in six seasons.
This will be a mutually beneficial relationship. With new signing Eric Bailly and the relatively inexperienced Luke Shaw returning, Mourinho will need Smalling to lead by example as Terry did at Stamford Bridge for so long. If he can, it will only benefit his claims to be England's senior defender – perhaps alongside the younger Stones and Clyne...
In the 1-0 win against Tottenham on the opening day of the 2015/16 season, Smalling completed all five of his attempted tackles, made three interceptions, and five clearances. On top of that, the Greenwich-born defender completed 46/55 passes. He is everywhere, and that is exactly what Mourinho will want.
The former Real Madrid boss will offer Smalling the gold standard in defensive tactics – and accept nothing less. He will teach him the dark arts that win titles, has the capability to forge a defence that Smalling will be proud to lead, and will create a winning mentality that could propel the England man from good to great.
Smalling has the talent, but Mourinho has the mentality. It is, potentially, a very loving marriage.