Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Richards' England prospects

Ian Herbert in today's Independent:

Richards has not featured for England since November 2007 but after his most promising display for 12 months in City's win against Sunderland on Sunday he rejected suggestions that his game had started to lack focus and insisted that the more regular right-back berth he has recently secured has made the difference. "A lot of things been said about me not being focused on my game this season, but I have been," Richards said. "But I have been chopped and changed in my position, playing left-back, right-back, centre-back and even in the centre of midfield. I'm not going to make excuses but I'm happy playing right-back and that's where I'm playing consistently now."

Richards had the world at his feet when he became the youngest defender to represent England, against the Netherlands in November 2006. He became a regular fixture for the next 12 months but a combination of injury and his indifferent displays at City – Richards' positional play is a recurrent weakness and was excruciatingly bad in the defeat at West Bromwich in December – have seen Glen Johnson and Wes Brown step above him, with Richards stranded on 11 caps.

The problem, I think, has been over the discord between Richards' playing right back and centre back. In 2006/07, Richards played at, with some promise, at right back and made his England debut there in November 2006, in place of the injured Gary Neville. But in the summer 2007 Sylvain Distin left on a Bosman, and Sven-Göran Eriksson brought in Vedran Ćorluka to play right back. This meant that Richards moved inside to partner Richard Dunne at centre half. And although he had a fantastic start, winning the August Premier League Player of the Month, he struggled for form and fitness by the end of the season. This was mirrored with his England displays: he did play in some of the successful McClaren games of summer 2007, but also played - not particularly well - in the Russia and Croatia defeats. But given his inexperience, being asked to play right back for England - while learning to play centre back for City - was always going to be difficult.

When it was first suggested that Ćorluka would be sold to Tottenham Hotspur this summer, Richards must have been delighted: the departure of the man from Zagreb would open up the right back position for him to play. How disappointed he must have been, then, when Charlie was instantly replaced (in fact, replaced before he left) by another international right back from abroad - Espanyol's Pablo Zabaleta. Again, Richards was forced to play centre back while a big money buy was installed to his right hand side. He formed a calamitous partnership with Tal Ben Haim and then a pretty slipshod one with Richard Dunne. He even played a few games at left back. Capello clearly, and understandably, didn't fancy him for the England full team, and he was back with Pearce's U21s.

But the new year brought a new solution from Mark Hughes, something that should be recognised as one of his best decisions as City manager: moving Zabaleta into central midfield, Richards to right back and bringing in Nedum Onuoha at centre back. These changes were made over a few January games and have transformed the team as a defensive unit. Richards is no longer an awkward and error-prone centre half but is getting back to the boundless, gallopping full back of the Pearce era. For the first time since spring 2007, he is playing in his natural position, the one in which England have a vacancy. He still has work to do yet; but if he can finish the season in this vein of form, he can set himself up for a good shot at making the 2010 World Cup.

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