It’s with little exaggeration that I say Jermaine Pennant’s been a revelation so far this season.
We saw glimpses of it as he improved over the second half of last season, and Pennant did have the most appearances of any Liverpool player in '06-07 (which means he was doing something right). But in the four league games so far this year, Pennant’s assured his spot in the squad and become one of Liverpool’s most dangerous players in the process.
His biggest improvement has been his crossing at pace. Pennant’s role in the team is to beat his man and whip a cross in from the byline. Too often last season, he’d come to a stop and settle himself before blasting in a cross, or if he was running full speed, the cross wouldn’t be the most accurate or it’d be floated in without enough velocity.
Not this season. Pennant’s crossing while in a full sprint has been nearly perfect. There was a moment against Derby that epitomizes this for me. In the first 15 minutes, before Pennant switched over to the left, he was running with the ball down the right and just before he hit the top of the box, no-looked the defender and chipped a perfect cross with pace into Torres, who was unlucky not to get his header further away from Bywater.
Pennant is one of the few Liverpool players who does this successfully. All the other great crossers on the team, such as Finnan, Gerrard, and even Aurelio, are far better when pinging balls in from a standing position. It is far and away harder to play in crosses while running at pace, and if successful, it challenges the defense so much more.
But he’s also matured as a player and professional. You never hear of personal problems, as you did when he was at Arsenal or Birmingham, and he’s gotten so much better defensively in tracking back and pinning the fullbacks in their own half (against Ashley Cole and Chelsea being a prime example).
I understand the complaints about his lack of a goal threat, but as he progresses as a crosser of the ball and an all-around player, it’s becoming less of a concern, and if he continues to improve as he has done, I imagine goals will come.
The other major improvement in my eyes has been Pennant’s play on the left of midfield, and that’s where the title of this post comes in.
Pennant: I don't mind being left
We know England’s problems on the flanks. Both flanks. Whether Joe Cole’s injured on the left, or Beckham’s recalled (and subsequently injured) on the right, among other issues. The biggest concern is that without Joe Cole, England looks lost down the left.
It’s still very early days of Pennant playing on the left for Liverpool, but the results so far have been excellent. I understand the last game against Derby was always going to be a rout, but after 20 minutes, when Pennant moved over to the left and Babel to the right, the game really opened up. Pennant cutting in on his right foot utterly embarrassed Tyrone Mears time and time again. It was his running with the ball that earned Alonso’s free kick that opened the floodgates.
We’ve seen Cole play on the right flank for Chelsea as well as on the left. And with Pennant demonstrating the potential to do the same, imagine if England could use this to maximum effect. Cole not having any joy on the left? Switch him with Pennant, and let them have a go at the opposite fullbacks. It’s an underappreciated asset, and there’s a reason why Benitez has cultivated it in Liverpool this season.
Also, say the rumors are true, and Joe Cole’s really going to pair Michael Owen up top against Israel because of Rooney’s injury and Crouch’s suspension. I find it hard to believe that Stuart Downing would be a greater threat on the left than Pennant. Downing’s improved, and admittedly is more of a goal threat than Pennant, but he’s still got a tendency to drift in and out of games, doesn’t run at defenders nearly enough, and hasn’t played anywhere near his best in an England shirt.
McClaren is never going to experiment like this in what are essential Euro 08 qualifiers. He’s far too conservative as a manager (he’s recalled Heskey (?!) instead of taking a chance on Ashton for fuck’s sake). But had he the foresight to experiment with it in the worthless friendlies against Brazil or Germany, it might be a different story, and I firmly believe England would be better for it.
I can’t really criticize taking Ashley Young or David Bentley. Both, like Pennant, are young and improving by the game, and should be involved in the England set-up. But Pennant is at least as much of an option as those two, if not playing better than both so far this season. And why he hasn’t been called up at all is beyond me.
But in all honesty, I’m not that bothered if he’s not called up, although I firmly believe he deserves it. His priority, and mine, is his play for Liverpool, which I have very few complaints about. And long may it continue.