As Kyle Walker nonchalantly headed the ball back towards Hugo Lloris in last month’s clash against local neighbours Chelsea, seemingly oblivious to the Chelsea striker Samuel Eto’o lurking in the background, waiting to pounce like a lion on its prey, it summed up what has been a disappointing season for the Tottenham right-back. The sloppy back pass is an appropriate embodiment of the quality of Walker’s performances this season, perhaps only keeping his place in the Tottenham team due to the even more incapable Kyle Naughton.
Opposing left wingers seem to lick their lips at the prospect of facing the England international, fully aware of the lack of defensive responsibility he seems to take, with his attention instead being given to assisting the attack with overhit crosses and misplaced passes. Yet as Eto’o nicked the ball away from the feet of Lloris and slotted home into an empty net to seal Chelsea’s dominant 4-0 victory, Walker, although inevitably disappointed, will go home safe in the knowledge that he will be on the plane to Brazil this summer for the World Cup with the national team. Or will he?
A groin injury has since kept Walker out of the Tottenham line-up, and whilst he’s been recovering at home from a tiring season of lazy tracking back and lethargic tackling, attention has been growing on a full-back on the other side of London.
Joel Ward has been an ever-present part of the Crystal Palace defense that have seemingly managed to escape relegation against all the odds, and praise has been rightfully showered on the 24-year-old. Ward’s anticipation and ability to read the game on a week to week basis has provided vital defensive solidity for Palace throughout the season, supplemented by his incredible versatility, being one of a very select few who can play comfortably at both right back and left back, as well as slotting into defensive midfield when his team have required him.
His capacities are not limited to defending either, and is fully capable of helping the team in attacking transitions, with his ability to carry the ball out of defense and either pick out a teammate or bomb forward on the overlap to supply a cross.
The thought of Crystal Palace in 12th place in the Premier League table would have been completely absurd and implausible back in November, with even the most optimistic of Eagles fans unlikely to suggest such a feat, yet as we approach the conclusion of a thrilling season, that is exactly where they stand with just 5 games to play.
The transformation that Tony Pulis has brought to this Palace team has led to his nomination for manager of the season from some quarters, with a previously disorganized and seemingly hopeless defense under the previous manager, Ian Holloway, now boasting the 5th best defensive record in the league.
The stats for Joel Ward are no less impressive, with the full-back’s defensive abilities exhibited by the fact that he has won the most tackles in the Premier League, with 92, whilst only 7 players across Europe’s top five leagues have won more. If we compare that figure to that of Kyle Walker’s and Glen Johnson’s, his two counterparts in the England squad, it is barely surpassed with both players’ tackles combined, with Walker winning 44 and Johnson winning 49.
Ward also has a better percentage of aerial duels won, with 62%, in comparison to Walker’s 59% and Johnson’s 46%, a higher number of interceptions made, possessing the 7th best record in the Premier League with 79, and a substantial number of clearances with 153. Both Johnson and Walker lag far behind, with 72 and 85 respectively.
Even when comparing Ward’s stats with whom many consider the best right-backs in the league, Cesar Azpilicueta and Pablo Zabaleta, the Englishman surpasses them in each and every category. Although it could be argued that Crystal Palace’s game plan and defensive style would naturally lead to a higher number of defensive actions than that of a full-back in a more attacking team such as Liverpool or Tottenham, there is no doubt about the ability and quality of Ward.
When it comes to the national team, let’s face it, England aren’t the best team in the world and have very little chance of actually winning the World Cup. When it comes to the big games, for example, against Italy in the group stages, a compact, organised and robust defense will be crucial if England want any chance of success this summer.
Full-backs will be expected to see out their defensive duties ahead of aiding the attack, and it is a style of football that would suit Joel Ward much more than Johnson or Walker. Ward has been in far superior form this season, although it may seldom be noticed as he doesn’t play for a club with the stature of Liverpool or Tottenham, and it could easily be argued that he is up there with Azpilicueta and Zabaleta as the best right-backs in the league. His form certainly merits a call-up for his national team, now it’s just up to Hodgson to open his eyes.