In the height of Everton’s compliments, Leighton Baines has almost gone unnoticed through the 2013/14 season. With so many having performed excellently, players like Baines, Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin who have continued to perform at their high standards have seen the plaudits handed elsewhere. Ross Barkey, John Stones, Seamus Coleman, Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry are just a few that have surpassed the three in receiving praise; from pundits and fans alike.
One day Baines did grab the headlines was at Upton Park away to West Ham United with two jaw-dropping free-kicks. The former Wigan man has long-been known as a set-piece specialist but his contribution to this game was something remarkable. The first equaliser struck on the hour mark going to Jussi Jääskeläinen’s right. Twenty minutes later Baines struck another; this time curling away from the West Ham stopper to his left, hitting the post and again levelling the two sides. Penalties against Stoke City, Swansea City in the FA Cup and in the league and of course the one against Manchester United took up the rest of Baines’ goal tally.
A testament to Baines’ season in proof was cementing the England left-back position. Even though some may say Ashley Cole didn’t play for most of the season, it was still an achievement with Cole returning towards the end of the season in important games and playing well for Chelsea against Atletico Madrid and Liverpool away. It was these last few games of the season that kept Cole in with a shout for a World Cup spot and even now many pundits claim Cole should have been included. Baines came in for criticism after England’s opening game for the Italy second goal, with most forgetting the Everton man faced a 2-on-1 situation almost every time he was attacked – also forcing him to be less adventurous in the opposition half.
Although Baines had one fewer assists last season to that of the season before, the full-back crossed 99 times less according to the Premier League statistics webpage. The reason for fewer crosses from Baines has been that the Englishman is now more part of the build-up play rather than the final ball. Under David Moyes the 29-year-old was the main focal point for providing goal-scoring opportunities but now and as Roberto Martinez has stated during last season that with a less direct style of play, the less Baines crosses but involved in what the manager calls a "pre-assist".
With Steven Pienaar injured in portions of the campaign, it was interesting to see Baines without his partner in crime. The two developed a close relationship and fluent combination under Moyes but with the South African’s injuries the partnership didn’t have much time to continue under Martinez. Instead we watched how Baines coped, at both ends of the pitch, with more of a conventional winger ahead of him – in Kevin Mirallas, Gerard Deulofeu and Aiden McGeady. Having said that, in a formation usually 4-2-3-1 instead of Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 the wide midfielders have had less responsibility defensively; meaning Baines has had to improve in that sense but also that a centre midfielder would cover for him when going forward; usually Gareth Barry in Baines’ case. With the change of formation and personnel in front of him, Baines has had to attack differently. When playing with Pienaar, Baines had the option of over or under-lapping whereas playing with Mirallas or Deulofeu and even sometimes Osman or Barkley – Baines was limited to over-lapping with those four often coming inside. When playing with McGeady ahead of him, because the Irishman is a winger who likes to get to the by-line and cross rather than come inside and shoot; Baines was limited to under-lapping and this is something that might be looked at in preparation for next season.
For one or two months of the season for the first time since cementing his Everton place, Baines has had serious competition for his starting place. Bryan Oviedo came in for Baines when he injured his foot in the home Merseyside derby and his superb performances allowed Baines time to bide his way back into the team fully fit and not rush his recovery. It would have been interesting to see how far this competition for the left-back spot would have gone had Oviedo not suffered his heart-breaking ankle injury at Stevenage in the FA Cup.
As far as what the future holds for Baines, it seems his future lies in a blue shirt for the foreseeable after signing a new four-year contract in January with the Toffees. In fact it is probably one of the first transfer windows that Baines is not linked with a move away from Goodison Park and that should only help him in the coming season. As for internationally, it seems as though the universal push is for Luke Shaw to be England’s left-back. If that is the case it could benefit Everton; despite how unfair it might seem.
Like a lot of the Everton squad, it appears that Baines has an excellent relationship with Martinez – perhaps more than most considering the Spaniard took his full-back to watch Philipp Lahm play in a defensive midfield role at Old Trafford for Bayern Munich against Manchester United. When one considers Baines’ pass for the first goal in the 3-0 win against Arsenal, it seems feasible imagining Everton’s number 3 in an anchoring role in a few years’ time after more miles on his legs and a better reading of the game and replicating the transformation made by the German.