An x-ray on Leighton Baines' foot last night confirmed the worst news possible; Everton will be without their star full-back for up to a month as he recovers from a broken toe. With the England international set to miss most of the extremely congested Christmas period, including upcoming visits to Old Trafford and the Emirates, Everton will hope that Baines can recover as quickly as possible. Here we assess the options available to Roberto Martinez to deal with the left backs absence.
Everton's most obvious solution is Brian Oviedo. Brought in under the previous regime, this is the Costa Rican's second season at Goodison Park, yet he has only a handful of games under his belt as a direct result of both the standards Baines has set and his avoidance of injuries over the last four years. From what we have seen of Oviedo in his limited showings, he is very much a like for like replacement for the England man. Fast, comfortable on the ball and quick on the turn, the only thing lacking is his ability from dead ball situations, though Everton are comfortably covered in this area. The main problem for Everton is that Oviedo has had little game time during his time at Everton so far, and hasn't had a chance to adapt to the rigours and demands of the Premier League, so it would be a case of throwing him into the deep end, especially with away games against United and Arsenal. They would also be losing the highly lauded relationship that Pienaar and Baines have built over the years, which is often a focal point of Everton's best attacking moves.
As seen during the Merseyside derby, Everton could always use Gareth Barry to fill the void. The midfielder has bags of experience playing in the position as he started his career as a left-back, and is of course comfortable in the Premier League. However he is hardly a spring chicken, and unlikely to provide the same level of marauding runs down the wing that have typified Baines' dominance of the position, nor the integral link up play with Pienaar as mentioned earlier. A further problem is that Martinez would be splitting up the ever improving partnership the Englishman is building with youngster James McCarthy in the centre of the park whilst it has been proved Leon Osman is not an adequate replacement in the position.
The next option available to Everton is to move Sylvain Distin into the position. The Frenchman is natural on the left side of the centre back pairing, and would probably be able to adapt relatively quickly into the position should that be the preferred choice of action. The problem is that playing centre back is a very different game to playing full-back, and Distin would be a vulnerable point opponents would look at exploiting. Employing Distin at left back would also result in one of the other centre back options, either Johnny Heitinga or youngster John Stones, having to come in alongside Phil Jagielka at the heart of the defence. This option could prove problematic though as the Dutchman rarely impressed last season, with all signs pointing that he might leave during January or on a free at the end of the season, and Stones has little experience at this level.
The argument of adapting to a different position would also rule out using either Tony Hibbert or Seamus Coleman as replacement for Baines. Although both are natural full backs, they are predominantly right footed, so being moved to left back would be akin to trying to fit a square peg into a circle hole. This technique of using a right footed player playing on the left, or vice versa, is common place for wingers but is very rarely successful in defence where defenders are often uncomfortable using their weaker foot.
That centre back problem also taints the option of Martinez reverting to the 3-5-2 formation he favoured during his tenure at Wigan. Whilst both Oviedo and Coleman would be comfortable playing in the wing-back positions, Everton's cover at centre back is limited. As mentioned earlier, Heitinga struggled when he was needed last season, a particular mauling at the hands of Christian Benteke standing out painfully, and youngster John Stones is inexperienced to say the least. However he was very impressive during pre-season, that penalty against Juventus was a particular highlight, and Martinez has shown he is willing to back youth if he believes they are good enough. It would be a gamble of the highest order to bring the former Barnsley man in against a rampant Arsenal, and the revitalised talents of Wayne Rooney though.
Of all the options, it would appear that Bryan Oviedo is the one that would cause the least disruption to the team overall. He could slot in easily to left- back and is very similar in his style to Baines, though his lack of first team action is of course a worry for Roberto Martinez. In contrast to this though, the Costa Rican is likely to be very keen to impress and will be aware that he needs to grab this opportunity with both hands should it arise.
To put a more positive spin onto the problem, this is also a chance for Martinez to assess his options. Every indication is that interest in Baines will likely be high come the January transfer window, and with no new contract yet to be signed, it will provide Everton with an insight into a life without him. For the time being however, the most important thing is that Everton adapt quickly and do not lose the momentum gained from their derby performance and that Leighton Baines focuses on getting fit without risking further problems.
More from Royal Blue Mersey: