If not for John Stones suffering an injury scare in warm-ups of Saturday's match versus Norwich City, Leighton Baines's long-awaited return to the Everton lineup would've been the biggest pregame storyline.
Alas, a day after turning 31, Baines took the field for a semi-surprising full 90 minutes against the Canaries in place of Brendan Galloway at left back. This coming just days after Galloway turned a recent few months of good form into a long-term contract at Everton.
As one of the most dependable Toffees players in recent memory, you'd have expected more reaction, both good and bad, to Baines's performance on Saturday. Instead, the one consensus of Baines coming from the Norwich match is that his new hairstyle is absolutely dreadful. So in an effort to look beyond Baines's unquestionably greasy black mane, here's an in-depth look at how the veteran defender performed in his return from injury.
With Baines being one of the most gifted defenders on the attacking side in the English game, let's start by looking at how he did when pushing up into the Norwich half. Perhaps Baines's biggest moment of the game came inside the Canaries' penalty area when he got on the end of a cross to volley a blasting attempt that clanged off the post. Having to hit it first time with his weaker right foot, Baines gave as good an attempt as possible, considering the initial ball in wasn't meant for him. With Everton up 1-0 at the time, the blue corner of Carrow Road would've exploded if Baines was a couple inches inside. Having scored a league goal in every season but his first at Everton, this would've been some way to open his account for 2015-16.
Another staple of Baines's game has always been set-piece taking, and there were four chances to get a look at that against Norwich. Baines's two first half corners were both intended, and rightly so, for Romelu Lukaku on the near post. While neither ball found the Belgian's forehead, Baines did achieve his goal of putting the ball in a dangerous and winnable area. Early in the second half with the game at 1-1, Baines got a chance to curl in a free kick from the right flank from 35-40 yards out. This classic location for a Baines assist led to an anything-but-classic moment as the ball in, aimed for the far post, sailed over everyone and petered out for a goal kick. Finally, late in the game, Baines made his third and final attempt at a corner. To the chagrin of every Toffees supporter, the ball never got past the first defender.
Shifting gears, there were some concerns from Baines defensively. Not surprisingly, Baines looked a step slow and a bit sloppy in his return. This was most clear in the first half as Norwich tried to run its attack through speedy right winger Nathan Redmond. While Redmond didn't attempt to break down Baines one-on-one, he was able to get behind and possess the ball near the touchline, where the opportunity to send passes in was there, and eventually snuffed out. Baines's failure to stick with Redmond here forced Ramiro Funes Mori to defend the touchline, while Baines drifted into a deeper position into the box, presumably to defend passes in. This is a concern. With Everton already struggling to win headers defensively, the 5'7" Baines should not be taking positions where he'll have to win aerial battles.
We end our breakdown of Baines's day on a sour note: the Norwich goal. Did Wes Hoolahan score? Yes. Was Baines initially marking Hoolahan on the near post? Yes. Is the goal Baines's fault? Maybe, hard to say. It's true Baines should've reacted more quickly to the ball bouncing around the box. In fact, by the time Baines did turn around, Hoolahan was already celebrating his scrappy finish. But it probably shouldn't have gotten to this point. Tim Howard should've gotten a stronger hand on the initial ball in, and Ross Barkley absolutely should've made a more confident clearance. As is the case with most goals, there were multiple shortcomings here. But could Baines have done more? Certainly.
Overall, playing the full 90 aside, Baines's return to the starting XI wasn't terribly surprising. Yes, he looked sloppy, but he's a 31-year-old player returning from a long-term ankle injury. That said, his performance Saturday was enough, for me, to see that Galloway is the current best option at left back. While Baines's clever attacking skill will always have its advantages, it's not what Everton needs presently. With the Toffees having scored the third most goals in the Premier League, they don't need the better attacker, they need the better defender to shore up that left side. And right now, that's Galloway.