It’s curious that Aaron Lennon still remains that rarest commodity: an underrated English player playing the best football of his career.
If those who decided to name Manchester United’s Michael Carrick the Man of the Match at White Hart Lane last Sunday had waited a bit longer, Lennon’s final contribution might have convinced them to change their minds.
Deep in injury time, and with the snow falling more heavily making playing conditions trickier, the England winger calmly controlled David de Gea’s punch before picking out Clint Dempsey on the six-yard line. The American applied the relatively straightforward finish.
Lennon was the most dangerous player on the pitch and he also provided one of the game’s other illuminating moments: With Patrice Evra close to him and his back to goal on the halfway line, he spun away from the defender with one touch before picking out Jermain Defoe in the box. The England striker should have finished but for a poor first touch and scuffed shot.
Of course, saying that Lennon is underrated means nothing, just as describing a player as overrated means nothing; some people think Zlatan Ibrahimovic is overrated. Looking at the spread of votes for the Ballon d’Or some people obviously think Lionel Messi is overrated. And that’s fine.
There are other, admittedly looser, criteria by which we can judge a player’s market value and one of those is essentially what Spurs are doing now with Gareth Bale—having to deny he’s for sale, or saying he might be for sale for, say, £60million (from the Mirror). Lennon, on the other hand, is never, or at least rarely, linked with a big-money move away from north London.
We can put forward a number of theories as to why this might be the case.
If one were to put together a highlights package of Lennon’s career, what one would essentially have is a montage of him doing a lot of the same things over and over again, and doing them really well: taking the ball away at speed on the break to relieve pressure on the defence, spinning away from his marker as he did against Evra, teasing a defender just enough to provoke a lunge before quickly flicking the ball away and being fouled (as, again, he did on Sunday), or taking the ball up to the defender and when the wide avenue is blocked, cutting inside and having a shot on his left foot (Jermain Defoe could have scored from one such move against United).
What you would not see are the very skills that massively inflate the value of English players on the domestic market. Lennon, for instance, can’t shoot from distance like Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson can. He can’t whip the ball into the box at pace like James Milner can. He can’t take dangerous free kicks just outside the box.
Against Norwich on Saturday, Henderson hopelessly gave the ball away a number of times when it looked easier to find a man in space. Yet, he came up with that half-volley strike into the top corner to put Liverpool ahead. Hence, his contribution was the most eye-catching in the montage at the end of Sky Sports’ coverage and it’s one of the things people will remember most about the game. Those watching highlights of the Spurs-United game probably wouldn’t have seen Lennon’s mastery of the conditions, his constant probing, or his insatiable work ethic.
He also seems to be unfortunately poised in that space between the "safe" winger who will run incessantly from box to box and the winger who will beat a couple of defenders before firing in from 25 yards out. Nani can do the latter, but Alex Ferguson doesn’t trust him.
Milner might be the game’s best example of the box-to-box winger. It was one of the greatest descriptions of a footballer, ever, when the Guardian’s Barney Ronay likened Milner to “a man very stubbornly doing lengths of a swimming pool while a water polo match goes on all around him.”
Roy Hodgson certainly saw the value in just such a player when he made Milner his first-choice at the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. He suits Hodgson’s innate conservatism, and his very presence is a sort of comfort blanket on the right of England’s team.
Lennon is similar to Carrick in that all the subtle, intelligent things they do to positively influence a game sometimes seems unremarkable. The accumulation of clever, technical contributions is often sidelined by more headline-grabbing moments, by planetary-aligned inspiration, even if the qualities of Lennon and Carrick offer greater long-term value to their teams.
Ask Spurs fans who they’d have in their team, though, and they’d likely pick Lennon over Milner and Henderson every time. They might also offer a silent prayer that his consistent excellence continues to go unnoticed among the richest clubs in Europe.
Follow John Kelly on Twitter @JKelly1882