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Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Lennon Reaps Rewards As Capello Picks Progress

As the exclusion of Theo Walcott from the England squad grabs most of the headlines, one call-up in the Arsenal winger’s position – having initially been the focus of Sky Sports dreaded yellow breaking news doom bar of peril – was largely considered unremarkable. Aaron Lennon, coming back from a persistent groin injury, was included as arguably Fabio Capello’s first-choice wide man to almost no surprise.

Two wingers, both alike in attributes; Walcott and Lennon are diminutive and blessed with searing pace. Both have World Cup qualifying man-of-the-match performances against Croatia to their name. But while Walcott scored a smash and grab hat-trick, Lennon made goals for the strikers and midfielders and was a constant nightmare for Croatia at Wembley. Both have three Premier League goals this season. But Walcott has two assists, Lennon ten (and in a game fewer). Ever a man for results, Capello’s pragmatism has continued to point him towards Lennon.

Lennon’s final ball, it is widely agreed, is of a better quality than Walcott’s. Perhaps some caution is warranted here: being ‘better than Walcott’s’ doesn’t make it high quality. There is no doubt it has improved, though, and that could comprise the Spurs man’s crucial asset. Where Lennon, criticised in previous years for his head-down style, has blossomed into an excellent all-round winger, Walcott has stagnated; even regressed. Ironically, his involvement with England in a different guise, at the Under 21s European Championships affected his pre-season and is probably the cause of his part in the other similarity between the two. Both have been disrupted by injury this year, but the behaviour of their respective stock during their spells on the sidelines could not have been more marked.

Lennon’s blistering start to the season with Tottenham had virtually guaranteed his inclusion in this summer’s squad even before he was injured. Everything Walcott did when trying to recover match fitness was scrutinised for an immediate return to form, another devastating impact like in Zagreb; everything Lennon did – unremarkable on his comeback – was hailed as a step in the right direction.

Credit must go to Lennon. Without passing judgement on Walcott, Lennon is a model of listening to his coaches and developing his talent. Not many footballers are blessed with such raw pace. Even fewer are able to combine that with speed of mind. Most ‘intelligent’ footballers are associated with sluggishness: Teddy Sheringham springs to mind quicker than he ever moved on the pitch.

Craft and guile and wingers are an extremely valuable combination. Lennon has sharpened his ability to pick the right ball and deliver it at the right time. He is not perfect – much like another rough diamond, Adam Johnson, he has been known to twist and turn just once too often – but it is getting better all the time and could well be one of England’s most potent weapons. Talk coming out of the England camp suggests that frustration was mounting with Walcott’s lack of positional discipline in matches – perhaps harsh when all expect him to be reprising his Croatian goalscoring exploits – though you can guarantee Lennon is all too keen to keep chalk on his boots for 90 minutes.

Though England appear blessed with options on the flanks, as four wingers competed for places in the 23, none of the candidates have been consistent, whether through injury (Lennon), confidence (Walcott), or the emergence of others (Wright-Phillips). Johnson, the reason for Wright-Phillips’ stint on the bench at Eastlands, is not considered experienced enough to warrant a place. Of the remaining limited options, and with the added bonus of previous World Cup experience, Lennon is the obvious first pick.

While much of Fabio Capello’s squad indicates that the Italian has foregone his pledge to pick on form, Lennon has enjoyed some scintillating moments and has been England’s best winger this season. The lack of surprise at his inclusion, as well as his return to fitness, is a testament to his efforts to improve. Rob MacDonald

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