Adam Johnson's importance to Manchester City has been there for all to see and even his manager, Roberto Mancini, is starting to realise that.
Johnson is making the difference for Man City and even Mancini realises
The main talking point surrounding Roberto Mancini's tactical strategy this season is his fondness for playing three defensive midfielders, especially in big games, at the expense of creative players. It has made Manchester City tougher to beat, but is not always so easy on the eye.
Adam Johnson has been the prime victim of this policy. The talented English winger has had to contend with David Silva, James Milner, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Mario Balotelli, Jo and Emmanuel Adebayor, and later Edin Dzeko, for one of the two places to support the captain Carlos Tevez in City's attack.
Of those players, Johnson, at £8 million (Dh47.2m) commanded by far the smallest fee when he was signed from Middlesbrough in January 2010. At the time, Mancini compared him to Ryan Giggs and talked up his chances of making the England squad.
Indeed, Johnson has become something of a regular for England, but not for City.
After a fine start to the season, Johnson has been in and out of the team, and twice has been publicly criticised by Mancini. In September the manager said of Johnson that "he can still improve a lot and I would like him to understand that sometimes it's important for a player to play for the team … he has to understand he must work and he must think about football every day, and not other things."
A month later Mancini said: "When a young player plays five games very well all the newspapers say: 'Oh, this Adam Johnson is a fantastic player.'
"But Adam is a young player and he can improve a lot … For this, he must work, he must think, he must work for the team; not two dribbles, two crosses. In a top team you need more."
Amid the criticism, it appears that Mancini had ignored what Johnson was bringing to the City side.
The winger, 23, has a wicked cross and possesses dribbling skills that are rare in the Premier League.
An ankle injury kept Johnson out of action for two months, from January to March, and in that time it seems Mancini realised what he was missing.
"After Adam was injured we had a big problem because he is different to the other players. We don't have anyone else like that," the Italian said at the end of February.
Johnson was back in the starting line-up on Sunday against Sunderland, with a more attacking 4-4-2 formation to play to his strengths. The result: a 5-0 romp for City.
It put the Manchester side on to 56 points after 31 games, the same total as they had at this stage last season. Could they be farther up the table if Johnson had played more?
He is the third-leading scorer in the side, in all competitions, with seven goals, behind only Tevez (22) and Balotelli (nine). With five assists, Johnson is fourth in the team, behind David Silva (11), Tevez (nine) and Milner (six). And Silva's assists came in twice as many games as Johnson has played. The Englishman has scored once for every two-and-a-half games he has played and provided an assist once in every three, which would seem to explain why City's goals-per-game average almost doubles (from 1.29 to 2.09) with him in the team and their win ratio climbs from 42 per cent to 57.
In matches against the leagues' biggest teams — Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool — Johnson has started only once, a 3-0 home win against Liverpool. Of the other seven matches, City have drawn three 0-0, lost three and won just once, a fairly fortuitous 1-0 victory at home to Chelsea.
Liverpool away are next up, on Monday, and City fans as well as neutral observers must hope that Mancini will stick with Johnson, because he is certainly a thrill to watch with the ball at his feet.