Few footballers in the English game today polarise opinion as much as John George Terry. To his supporters he’s a warrior with the heart of a lion and to many Chelsea fans he’s simply their “Captain, Leader, Legend”. To his detractors Terry is a nasty boor, an arrogant individual whose powers are on the wane.
Having been found guilty by an independent commission of using racist language towards Anton Ferdinand the door to Terry’s England career look well and truly shut. Terry’s decision to retire from the international game prior to the judgment suggests that he felt the charge would be upheld. Even if he wins his appeal the likelihood of him donning the Three Lions jersey again seem slim, though stranger things have happened.
There have been a slew of articles commenting on the verdict, Terry’s character and the ramifications of the decision on the wider game and understandably so but in terms of the England team what have they gained and lost by the Chelsea captain’s decision to retire? Terry hasn’t made life easy for himself with the image he’s cultivated for himself both deliberately and unwittingly and again it’s understandable, perhaps correct even, that critics and supporters alike judge him with all the baggage that he carries but purely in football terms what have England lost and gained?
For a start, and there’s no point disguising the fact, John Terry is a very good defender. At the very least he’s one of the better English central defenders playing today. There is a reason why at the international level he was picked by Sven-Göran Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and most recently Roy Hodgson. Of the 78 games he played for England 50 ended in victory, 18 in draws and 10 in defeat resulting in a win percentage of 64.1%. Terry missed 32 games during his England career and according to Opta of those 32 matches there were 19 wins, 5 draws and 8 defeats, a win percentage of 59.4%.
Just for a bit of perspective in terms of competitive losses, Terry has featured in the 4-1 defeat against Germany at the 2010 World Cup, the 1-0 defeat against Ukraine in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and the 2-0 away defeat against Croatia in the Euro 2008 qualifiers. Without Terry, England lost 3-2 at home to Croatia and 2-1 away to Russia in the Euro 2008 qualifiers.
On the stats alone England seem more successful with John Terry playing in the side but figures can’t be solely relied on to judge the value of a player to a side.
Current England boss Roy Hodgson values experience highly and John Terry has plenty of international minutes under his belt. In that sense Hodgson is a pragmatist and reasoned that Terry’s experience, alongside that of Gerrard and Lampard would help the England squad in the long run offering guidance to some of the younger players coming through. Indeed along with Gerrard, Terry was one of England’s better performers at Euro 2012. That said Terry’s international experience features a failure to reach Euro 2008 and a record of never progressing beyond the quarter final of a major international competition. Now Terry is not alone in this category as the likes of Gerrard, Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole have suffered similar heartache but in terms of the debate they all have experience up to a point and unlike younger players have the scars of exiting major competitions in a painful or humiliating way. Whether there are psychological barriers or if self-doubt creeps in is hard to say but Terry, along with the other players mentioned, cannot offer words of advice as to how to win a penalty shoot-out at an international competition or how to handle quarter final match successfully.
The observation has been made that when the England top is donned players, who are otherwise confident, visibly shrink and let the pressure of playing for the national side get to them. John Terry is not one of these individuals if anything he relished the responsibility of playing and captaining his country. Terry certainly had the air of a confident player who didn’t fear the shirt and by all reports was very vocal in the dressing room. That said there’s a fine line between leading and overpowering and it can be argued that Terry’s influence can be suffocating as it can be inspiring.
Whether he was captain or not Terry seemed to demand the spotlight. The Chelsea skipper himself stated the first time he was stripped of England captaincy that there was every reason to ‘fight to get the armband back’. There was the infamous ‘mutiny’ in South Africa, a situation he badly misread, but perhaps more telling was his attempt to form a huddle after England beat Slovenia to qualify for the knock out stages. Whilst it may be seen as an act of leadership it was also undermining Steven Gerrard’s position as captain of England’s 2010 World Cup team. In mitigation, Terry seemed to have learned his lesson at Euro 2012 and was a far more low key presence on the pitch.
As a footballer John Terry is known for being a ‘warrior’, someone who’d put his body on the line. It’s an image that has been cultivated but it’s not without merit. What does go under the radar though is his distribution. According to Opta, Terry played 3,819 passes during his international career and had a pass completion rate of 89%. It’s hard to imagine Terry making the same error Joleon Lescott made, giving the ball away which led to Ukraine’s opening goal in the recent World Cup qualifier. Terry made 122 interceptions suggesting an ability to read the game well and made 400 clearances. On top of that Terry made a total of 71 blocks in his 78 appearances for England. All in all it the figures suggest that there’s more to his defending, certainly at the international level, than just being the clichéd old-fashioned English centre half.
Now it’s no secret that pace is not one of Terry’s strengths. If there’s a moment that could sum up Terry in nutshell it was him being outpaced by Zlatan, despite having a few yards advantage before recovering to make a tackle. Terry’s lack of pace though does have an effect on how the England side shape up. With Terry in the starting eleven, the option to play with a high line is taken away because of the fear of being turned and hit with a ball into space. The knock on effect is that the midfield has to sit deep so as not to fragment the team and the opportunity to press high up the pitch is not a viable option. In addition fullbacks have to be a little more defensively minded and may not take opportunities to overlap and support the attack for fear of exposing the backline. There are formations that can help deal with some of these issues up to a point but 4-4-2 is not one of them and that was England’s favoured system in Euro 2012.
For all of Terry’s qualities, the team has to be tailored to his strengths and cover-up his lack of pace. How much longer can England accommodate Terry especially given his age and physical condition?
Roy Hodgson has stated his disappointment at Terry’s decision to retire but for the England manager it could prove to be a blessing in disguise. England’s best result in recent times, the 1-0 victory against Spain, was achieved with Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott and not with John Terry. Granted it was a friendly and arguably it was a game and set-up which would have suited Terry’s style of football but the game showed that there are options beyond the former England captain.
John Terry at the moment is a better option than Joleon Lescott, Phil Jagielka, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill but now those player, when fit, have the opportunity to step up whilst Steven Caulker has been tipped to become a future international. It was a choice between tried and trusted against potential but now Hodgson as the opportunity to form a new, younger, more mobile partnership. The absence of Terry could become the making, internationally, of one of these players or someone else.
It has to be noted though that both Lescott and Jagielka, who were paired up against Ukraine in the 1-1 draw are 30 whilst Terry is only a year older.
Terry’s ability to play through the pain may look like an admirable trait and certainly reinforces the ‘warrior’ image but is it a sensible way to play? In his last competitive game Terry played through the pain barrier but with England comfortably winning he didn’t need to take a risk with his body, suffer further injury and miss a further game, as was the case with the recent World Cup qualifier against Ukraine. Whether or not he had already planned to retire Terry missed that qualifier as a result of playing on. There’s no guarantee that the Chelsea man would have recovered in time but had he gone off with 20 minutes to go and not caused further damage to his ankle he may have made the match against Ukraine and had a swansong at Wembley.
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