When West Ham line up against Swansea City at Upton Park on Saturday, they will play host to yet another ‘one who got away’, and this particular ex-Hammer has been compared to the beating heart of Barcelona.
Leon Britton’s diminutive stature and simple style of play make him inconspicuous to the untrained eye, but some of English football’s most respected figures have singled the Swansea midfielder out as a player of the highest quality. And so they should. After all, the facts and figures about Britton’s game are frightening. For example, at an aweinspiring 93.3 per cent, the little Londoner had a better pass completion rate than any player in Europe’s top five leagues at the midway point of last season, including the tiki-taka technician, Xavi.
So far this season, that figure is still at an impressive 91.7 per cent, according to the football statistics site whoscored.com. While the Hammers should definitely be wary of someone so obviously talented, fans of the club should be more concerned that he could still be playing in claret and blue if he had not been allowed to leave the Boleyn Ground.
West Ham have a long history of capturing some of the most talented young players in the English game, only to see them wriggle out of the net and come back to haunt the Hammers. Britton is one of the less celebrated members of the supposedly golden generation that came through the Academy of Football in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, and then went their own way.
Now 30 years old, Britton joined West Ham’s youth setup from Arsenal in 1998, and for a hefty fee too. “An FA panel set the compensation at £400,000 up front which was a record for a 16-year-old at the time,” Britton told The Sun at the beginning of January. “Arsenal offered me three years but West Ham were interested. They had Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Glen Johnson, Michael Carrick and a history of bringing players through.”
Of course, the ex-Hammers mentioned by Britton all left the club in multi-million pound moves to play for the biggest sides in the country. He, however, struggled to make a name for himself in east London and joined Swansea on loan in December 2002, falling four tiers down the Football League to what was then the Third Division. His move to south Wales was made permanent the following summer. This is perhaps what makes Britton’s departure all the more frustrating – he was not snatched from a powerless West Ham by a football giant offering a lucrative deal like so many of the talented youngsters to come off of the club’s famous production line. Instead, he was deemed as faulty goods and thrown on the scrapheap.
West Ham’s loss was definitely the Swans’ gain as the midfielder helped them rise up the divisions and into the Premier League in 2011. Since his fairy-tale ascendancy from almost dropping out of the Football League with the Swans to being back in England’s top flight, Britton has earned his plaudits with displays of incredible simplicity, logic and accuracy. Yes, he is not the kind of player who will go on a mazy run and bang the ball straight in the top corner, but he is a match winner
How? In a similar way to how Winston Reid is a match winner; he guards a victory by stopping the other team from being able to do what they want to do. Of course Britton is slight in build and only 5ft 7ins tall, so he cannot intimidate the opposition with displays of brute force like Reid. No, Britton uses brains instead of brawn and employs his extensive experience to read the game and put himself in the perfect position to shut down opposing attacks time and time again. Then, having won the ball, he retains possession with masterful short passing and patiently builds a counter-attack with his team mates, simultaneously driving his opponents crazy with frustration in the process.
This is, of course, adhering to one of the most simple and effective rules of football: when you have the ball the opposition cannot score – a rule West Ham constantly break, much to the annoyance of Hammers fans. With the amount of times West Ham give the ball away needlessly, Britton would surely be embarrassed to be part of the Sam Allardyce’s midfield. It is usually agreed that Big Sam’s first-choice five in the middle should be Mark Noble, Mohamed Diame, Joe Cole, Matt Jarvis and Kevin Nolan – although the captain has been criticised heavily for his poor performances recently.
That group of players has a combined pass completion rate of 80.24 per cent. Just to emphasise Britton’s prowess, that is more than ten percentage points less than Swansea’s favourite engine room operative. With Nolan misfiring, and Mohamed Diame constantly linked with a move away from Upton Park, hindsight suggests that the Hammers could probably have done with sticking by Leon Britton all those years ago. Now Hammers fans can only hope that this understated 30-year-old regresses back to his formative years when he runs out onto the pitch on Saturday afternoon.