His goal wasn’t a spectacular one. It was a chance almost any other attacker in the Premier League would have converted, given the chance. After Asmir Begovic spilled Fabio Borini’s shot into the right of the six-yard box, Johnson was given an open goal in the 17th minute against Stoke. One touch, a tap, and the Sunderland winger converted one of the easiest chances of the round, scoring the only goal as the Black Cats climbed out of the bottom three.
Never mind the goal didn’t show any extraordinary ability. Put aside the fact the tap in from a few yards out should say little about Johnson’s place among his country’s best attackers. With five goals in four games, the talk putting Adam Johnson in the conversation for Brazil is going to continue. If he maintains anything close to this form — if he continues playing with the confidence he’s gained since Gus Poyet arrived at Sunderland — it will be impossible for Roy Hodgson to keep him out of England 23 for this summer’s World Cup.
Before diving into that, let’s stop and consider our undo obsession with the English national team. This isn’t an English site. A huge majority of our reader base is American. The team’s not transcendently good, and there isn’t an overwhelming demand for discussion about it. Why we should be that concerned with the English national team, let alone somebody fighting for a spot on the back-end of the roster? Why should we care?
We can because discussion of the Three Lions is part of English soccer, just as La Roja is woven into La Liga, the Nationalmannschaft helps defined discussions of the Bundesliga, and the Azzurri is always relevant to Italy’s Serie A. In choosing to become Premier League follower, we’re also choosing to expose ourselves to the England national team. There’s unbreakable link with which discussion of Adam Johnson’s international future becomes no less obscure than debates about David Moyes’ performance. It’s just part of the deal.
Still, it might help if we applied some perspective on Johnson’s rise. Before this hot stretch (which started on Jan. 11), Johnson had one league goal in 18 games. Since he’s established his place in the Black Cats team, becoming the team’s leading scorer in the process, but to dwell on the last three league games while ignoring the previous 18 is just bad process. As hot as he’s been over the last two-plus weeks, the rest of Johnson’s 2013-14 tells us more about the player’s value.
That value’s remained relatively unchanged ever since Johnson first garnered attention with Middlesbrough. Fast, capable of beating a left back one-on-one, the former Manchester City winger provides game breaking ability. Occasionally you’ll encounter a team that can’t match up with a quick right wing. Against those sides, Johnson can define games.
Unfortunately, at the highest levels, those teams are pretty rare – part of the reason why Johnson’s no longer at the Etihad. The one elite skill he has isn’t enough to keep him in teams with more well-rounded talents.
For a team like Sunderland, however — a team unlikely to lure the likes to David Silva and Jésus Návas to the northwest — Johnson can be a very nice piece. Keep throwing him out there, and he’ll give you a couple of stellar performances per season, maybe even lead your team in goals. Against the right opposition, he’ll look like an England international.
We might be in the middle of one of those hot stretches now, something to keep in mind as Johnson’s England credentials are lauded. But for a better test of his international viability, we should expand our scope beyond four games. We should check back in spring. If Johnson really has become a consistent goal scoring threat, his numbers in March will say so. And if they do, we should consider the possibility Johnson’s now a different player than the one that’s been on the fringes of England squad since 2010.
Until then, Sunderland get to enjoy the benefits of Johnson’s unexpected surge. England-caliber or not, Johnson’s scored as many league goals as Steven Fletcher, Fabio Borini, and Jozy Altidore combined. Without him, the Black Cats would still be in the drop.