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Feb 2, 2012

Britton's got talent

He is the English Xavi, the man for whom passing is a pastime and a profession in one. His work consists of getting the ball, giving it to a team-mate and making himself available for a return pass, a process he repeats with mechanical regularity and elegant efficiency. He is 29 and uncapped. He is Leon Britton.

To some, it sums up the differences in footballing culture that he has played in 107 fewer internationals than Barcelona's playmaker. More pertinently, it highlights that Britton's is a belated rise to prominence; a player who has plied his trade in all four divisions is now being touted for an England call.

The reason is obvious. By completing 93% of his passes, Britton's became the unlikely name at the top of the leaderboard for the most accurate distributor in Europe. Factor in Swansea's success, especially their 3-2 win over Arsenal, and his excellence is being recognised.

Given England's historic issues with retaining the ball, Britton can seem a solution to an age-old problem. While Spain seem to have a surfeit of players like him, his particularly un-English attributes make him a rarity in these isles. Moreover, as Swansea's excellent defensive record shows, if the opposition are prevented possession, they will struggle to score.

It is also worth remembering that, despite his years in comparative obscurity, Britton is a player with pedigree. On Arsenal's books as a boy, graduating from West Ham's famous academy and attending the FA's centre of excellence at Lilleshall, he scarcely seemed to be heading for a relegation battle at the foot of the Football League, which was his lot when he joined Swansea. His rise has surprised many, but those who saw him as a teenager may be the exceptions.

However, amid the rush to acclaim him, a misconception has developed. His normal berth is at the base of the midfield, making him more the English Sergio Busquets than the division's premier Xavi impersonator. He rarely supplies the final pass, as is indicated by the absence of assists in his season's statistics.

And England have already belatedly unearthed a defensive midfielder, albeit of a very different type. Scott Parker has arguably been Fabio Capello's finest performer in the past 12 months and, in a department that used to be dominated by debates about Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, deserves to be the automatic choice. The Tottenham player prevented the perpetual passing of the Spanish Xavi and the Spanish Busquets from doing damage in November's win over the world champions.

In addition, as an alternative, Capello has Gareth Barry, to whom he has long been loyal. The Manchester City man is enjoying a far superior season to either of his previous campaigns at the Etihad Stadium, so this would seem a perverse time to omit him.

In any case, Capello, like his predecessors, has shown a reluctance to prioritise passing in a role where the English traditionally expect scrappers. Tom Huddlestone has made a single start for the national team and Michael Carrick, in an 11-year international career, just ten. The latter has been in excellent form over the last three months but can probably expect a summer off; if a Manchester United player anchors England's midfield, it is likelier to be the versatile colossus Phil Jones, not the unobtrusive metronome.

Nor has the England manager shown much interest in Britton. He watched the win over Arsenal, but the likelihood is that Theo Walcott was the major reason for his Liberty Stadium debut.

Perhaps, though, there are legitimate reasons to ignore the high-flying Swans. Their approach is unique, at least in this country, and the evidence is that they don't necessarily translate to other clubs. Players such as Darren Pratley and Andy Robinson have underperformed after crossing the Severn Bridge.

Britton began last season at Sheffield United, a complete mismatch between purist passer and a long-ball team, before making a swift return to his spiritual home. England are not quite Kevin Blackwell's Blades, but nor are they often compared with Barcelona.

They prospered, bizarrely, with 29% possession against Spain and, if that is a one-off, are accustomed to having a comparatively low share for one of the supposedly more accomplished teams. In any case, they only have three internationals before Euro 2012. It is difficult enough to integrate anyone, let alone someone used to a radically different approach.

A focus on Britton, understandable given his remarkable pass completion rate, ignores the reality that Swansea's style of play can only be executed by likeminded souls. Britton excels alongside Joe Allen, Mark Gower and Kemy Agustien; theirs is a shared ethos which potential international colleagues seem to lack.

So while many can look admiringly at Britton and wonder if he is the cure to the English disease - giving the ball away - the idea he will feature in Poland and Ukraine appears impractical. Not least because Swansea play far better football than England.

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