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Why England cannot afford to ignore Leighton Baines

The time has arrived for Leighton Baines to replace Ashley Cole as England's first choice left back.

Leighton Baines replaces Ashley Cole against the Republic of Ireland at Wembley. Will he be replacing him permanently?
Leighton Baines replaces Ashley Cole against the Republic of Ireland at Wembley. Will he be replacing him permanently?
Scott Heavey

In the run up to the 2010 World Cup, a poorly worded comment from an Everton full back lost him his place at football's biggest event. That full back was Leighton Baines, making an offhand remark about homesickness that he must certainly regret to this day.

England manager Fabio Capello decided to go with Aston Villa's Stephen Warnock as his second choice left back and Baines was left to enjoy his summer holidays. A disastrous tournament followed for England, ultimately ending in a humiliating defeat by their fiercest of rivals Germany. Baines had inadvertently dodged the bullet, and so set out to prove that he was not only the best left back in the Premier League, but arguably Europe.

Of such high quality have Baines's performances been during the last two seasons and the beginning of this, the debate of who should be England's first choice left back is a heated one. The case for the Everton man is strong, and gaining backing as the season picks up momentum. Two wonderful free kicks against West Ham recently were a demonstration that the Liverpudlian has taken his game to a level beyond that of Chelsea's full back Ashley Cole.

Last season alone, Baines created 116 goal scoring opportunities, more than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo combined, and a figure higher than any other player in the entirety of Europe's top five leagues. In a world game that includes the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Mesut Ozil amongst others, this is some feat for a player whose team were fighting for sixth place in the Premier League.

He also has a crossing accuracy of 29.6% from last season and this, as of the Chelsea game, compared to Cole's meagre 9.4%, and makes more key passes per game - 3.1 compared to 0.6.  Surely an England front line with the talents of a revitalised Wayne Rooney and free scoring Daniel Sturridge could only benefit from such a contribution?

Aside from this, the left back has pace in abundance and his marauding runs are often accompanied by quick turns of pace and telepathic link up play with Steven Pienaar. As a result of this, he finds himself in the opposition half more often than Cole, who rarely ventures past the half way line, leading to him scoring five goals compared to his opposition's one.

On top of these marauding runs and exceptional wide play, the left back has the added ability to use any dead ball situation to turn a game on its head. Not since David Beckham has England had someone who is consistently a danger from direct free kicks. Although Steven Gerrard occasionally produces, and Wayne Rooney has scored several times for Manchester United from such a situation this season, neither is as unfailingly dangerous as Leighton Baines. His two goals against West Ham recently were of the highest quality and technique, evoking memories of a certain Kevin Sheedy, and followed a free kick against Newcastle last season that was Roberto Carlos-esque in its ferocity and execution. Lest we forget, England would not have made the 2002 World Cup finals had it not been for that moment of magic from Beckham in the dying minutes against Greece.

The leading argument against Everton's man is his defensive capabilities. Whilst his attacking abilities are undeniable, his early years at Everton found some questioning the defensive side of his game after it took him several months to oust Joleon Lescott from the position.

Ashley Cole meanwhile has played at the top of the game for quite some time, with both Arsenal and Chelsea , and has a plethora of trophies and medals to his name including  league titles and a Champions League. It is not a stretch of the imagination to say that he could be the best English left back of all time.  However, on top of his excellent attacking performances, Baines has improved his defending to become an intelligent and committed defender who is rarely beaten by an opposition winger. On average, he makes 3.1 tackles per game, 0.3 more than Cole, intercepts the ball more often and has a higher percentage of blocking crosses as well. It is Cole's experience and standing that makes him the easy choice for England manager Roy Hodgson, but Baines has certainly demonstrated enough defensively to offer a comprehensive argument in his favour and dispel any lingering doubts

As selection headaches go, this is one that Roy Hodgson must welcome. Not many nations have such a problem, for want of a better description, and both players have their place in the England squad on merit. However, Leighton Baines offers England the more rounded footballer with that added in extra in the locker. Aside from being an intelligent defender with attacking dynamism, he is a danger from set pieces and takes a lethal penalty to add another string to his bow. Considering England's history with penalties in international tournaments, this is another plus point to consider.

Whatever job is asked of him, Baines is able to provide to the highest quality, though whether Roy Hodgson is willing to change the established order for England's benefit is yet to be seen. With Ashley Cole absent for England on Friday, Baines has his chance to put an end to the debate once and for all.

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