Hate him now: John Terry is back to being the best defender in England

First, let’s address the racist racially-abusing, teammate-cuckholding, spotlight-hogging elephant in the room. John Terry is the worst. Think of your least favorite player. If it’s not John Terry, have a word with yourself – it should be. Increasingly though, the opportunities to revel in Terry’s apparent decline have been severely limited. That’s because (and you may want to sit down for this) for the last 18 months, Terry has been the best defender in the Premier League.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Two seasons ago, mistakes had started creeping into Terry’s game. A slip here, a costly foul there, and a frequent habit of getting beaten for pace. On the back of one unsavoury incident after another, not to mention an ignominious exit from international soccer (a case of jumping before he was pushed), Terry’s career was sliding downwards. A combination of bad form and worse press meant there weren’t many people left on the Terry bandwagon. In fact, it’s fair to say that the Terry bandwagon had been set on fire and pushed off a cliff in the desert. He had been showing himself up as a bit of a tit, and he wasn’t even that good anymore.

Annoyingly, last season saw Terry start playing well again. Those mistakes became fewer and farther between, and at this, point it is difficult to make a case that any center back in England is superior.

How the hell did that happen? Terry is not the first player to experience a renaissance when it seemed that his best years were behind him. In this case, it is something of a perfect storm of favorable conditions that has enabled his recent good form.

First, José Mourinho returned to manage Chelsea again in 2013 after Sir Alex Ferguson snubbed him for the United job he answered the emotional appeal of his old club. While Terry doesn’t seem the type to need to be comforted by a familiar face, it has definitely helped that Mourinho likes his teams to play with a deeper defensive line. This leaves Terry less vulnerable to pacy opposition attacks.

England Training Session

Roy Hodgson then did Terry and Chelsea a favor by ignoring Terry’s not-so-subtle overtures in the media indicating that he would be open to a return to international soccer. The extra rest on Terry’s now 34 year-old body, and the fewer games in which he risks getting hurt, are no small factors in him not yet missing a game this season due to injury.

Consider also that the performances of individual defenders are usually magnified by the strength and consistency of the backline as a whole. Terry’s case in no exception. His partner in the middle, Gary Cahill, has been every bit as consistent in the last several months. Terry, Cahill, Branislav Ivanović, and (until recently) César “Dave” Azpilicueta have all been relatively injury free for the last year and a half as well.

On top of all that, Terry now has the league’s best defensive midfielder, Nemanja Matić, patrolling the area in front of him. More protection, a settled defense, fewer injuries, and a system that hides his limitations – it’s an ideal environment of sorts, though there’s no denying that Terry has been making the most of it. It’s not quite the same Terry of his prime, but it’s arguably a better version.

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Terry has always been an excellent organizer at the back, but with a supporting cast that is more or less the same on a weekly basis, there is now more concentration in his game and less bluster. Either through a lack of necessity, or a conscious choice, Terry is doing less of the showy barking and charging around, and just getting about the business of proper defending. He’s been lauded for his hard tackling all his career, but now he has learned to rely less on brute force and athleticism to make up for errors. He’s making a habit of being in the right place at the right time to begin with, partly reflected in the fact that he has yet to pick up a yellow card in the league this season.

When the various “team of the season” accolades are given out in a few months, only serious injury or a spectacular loss of form (we can still hope!) will prevent Terry from making the cut. Distanced from bad headlines, and away from the glare of the international spotlight, Terry has quietly gone back to doing what he does best. Worse than that, for the people who can’t stand him, he may have gotten a little better. John Terry has risen from the ashes like a particularly unpleasant phoenix, and reminded us that no matter what we think of Terry the person, Terry the player is still a force.

Photo credits, from top to bottom: Michael Regan/Getty Images; Ian Walton/Getty Images.

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