With Hamburg defender Michael Mancienne being talked of as a candidate for full England honours, Adam Bate takes a look at the former Chelsea man's Bundesliga form and wonders whether the 24-year-old could make the next step.
By Adam Bate - Follow me @GhostGoal
Last Updated: 12/11/12 1:32pm
The recent international call-ups for Ryan Shawcross and Steven Caulker have highlighted the fact that this is a good time to be a young English defender. If you're playing top-flight football, you've not troubled the FA's disciplinary committee and your surname's not Ferdinand then the chances are you've got Roy Hodgson's attention. But there's a player the England boss appears not to have contacted yet. And Michael Mancienne is more than used to seeing his peers overtake him in their progression.
Shawcross and Caulker both played in the England Under 21 team alongside Mancienne. While those two have nine international caps between them at that level, the Hamburg defender has 30 all of his own. In fact, the former Chelsea player has already seen 10 of the U21 squad he captained at the European Championship last year earn full international honours. As others advanced, the wiry centre-back appeared to have lost his way and was simply not developing.
Highly rated as a youngster and earmarked for stardom, Mancienne was backed for a long time at Stamford Bridge. But despite this promise, a truncated three-season loan stay at Wolves - in which he was often forced to play out of position as a holding midfielder - seemed to hamper his development. Neither player nor parent club could wait any longer and it was time to move on.
Former Blues director of football Frank Arnesen had not forgotten the potential he had first encountered as a teenager and retained faith in Mancienne, taking him to Hamburg in the summer of 2011. But there were times last season that the transfer threatened to become a disaster - not least when underperforming coach Michael Oenning was sacked and replaced by Thorsten Fink in the autumn. "When the new manager came, I was injured," Mancienne told the Daily Mail. "The team started to do better, won a couple, drew a couple. For a defender it's hard to walk back into a team."
That's ordinarily the point in the story at which the typical English footballer abroad turns tail and heads for home comforts. But, perhaps surprisingly, Mancienne stayed put. And after a sticky start to this season, the high-profile return of Rafael van der Vaart from Tottenham has sparked an upturn in fortunes for everyone at HSV - and in particular their centre-back.
Firstly, Hamburg shrugged off a winless start to the campaign to end Borussia Dortmund's 31-game unbeaten run on Van der Vaart's comeback game at the Volksparkstadion. Mancienne was remarkably solid up against Poland striker Robert Lewandowski. The 24-year-old, who had a tendency to get bullied in the Premier League, looked like a boy who had grown up in the slightly less robust environment of the German game.
"I think the difference between the two leagues is that sometimes the Premier League is a little bit more direct," Mancienne told Hamburg's official website. "But in the Bundesliga every team likes to build up from the back. I'm used to it anyway having come from Chelsea because that's how they like to play."
The very next home game against Hannover brought another win and another imperious display from Mancienne. "It was the best performance he's played in his 16 months since he came here," Arnesen told the Daily Mirror. The statistics back up Arnesen's thinking. Mancienne is currently near the top of the Bundesliga rankings for both clearances and blocked shots. He finally looks to be the defender that Arnesen has always believed he could be.
|Bundesliga stats - 2012/13|
And the Dane can hardly hide his excitement when talking of that vast potential. For Arnesen, despite the setbacks and the false starts, an England call-up is the next logical step. "I think the Bundesliga is as tough as, or tougher than, the Premier League because the rhythm of the league is very high and it's physically tough," he added.
"He has learnt so much from coming here. When you play for England, it's a different style of football. You're playing international opponents and it helps if you've experienced playing regularly against different opponents with a different style and Michael has done that here.
"He is not the tallest and yet his leap is unbelievable. He can jump so high. He is aggressive in a good way. He is quick and good on the ball. If I was the [England] coach then I would definitely look at him, absolutely. He could be a good shout for the squad as he can play right-back and centre-back. He has been outstanding."
Of course, there's always a risk that players can be overlooked when they move abroad. But Mancienne is not an ageing player producing one last turn for a foreign audience. He's too young for the scrapheap. And if the former England U21 captain truly has found his game in the Bundesliga, he could yet be worthy of consideration at full international level.