For the past two seasons the two words most likely to elicit groans from the Everton faithful were "Arouna Kone". The Ivorian striker managed just one goal in 17 league appearances prior to this season. While Kone's form is much (much) improved over the previous two campaigns, there is still enough inconsistency to mark him out as a rotational player. Since his excellent match against Aston Villa, he has been mostly a non-entity.
With Kone stringing together questionable games and Kevin Mirallas potentially on his way out in January, Toffee fans are looking around at their options on the left wing. Everton's current options seem limited to an out of position secondary striker in Steven Naismith, an out of position central midfielder in Tom Cleverley or an out of fitness (and 33 year old) Steven Pienaar.
The Toffees do have another in-house option however - Leighton Baines. We briefly discussed the possibility before, but let's tackle it a bit more in depth. It might seem silly to move a player who's been one of the Premier League's best at his position. And yes, he hasn't really played as a winger before, but Baines possesses a skill set that provides for some interesting opportunities as a winger.
First, let's talk about Baines wouldn't do. He doesn't have the size or aerial ability to play in Kone's winger/secondary striker hybrid role. He's much more comfortable playing the ball in from distance. Nor is he quite suited to play the way Tom Cleverley played at left wing earlier in the year. Cleverley is much more comfortable making his runs towards the center of the pitch than playing from wide areas.
Wingers are often required to be able to take on and beat their marker. At first blush, that doesn't seem like a strong suite for Baines. While he isn't likely to unleash a flurry of stepovers on his man, he has been a surprisingly effective dribbler over the years. If you compare Baines's '13/'14 and '14/'15 campaigns with those of Mirallas and Kone, he's not that far off. Baines averaged 1 and .9 dribbles respectively. Mirallas managed 1.4 and .9 and Kone just .2 and .6.
Baines also has an excellent first touch. something that Kone often struggles with. In Baines's worst season he averaged just .9 bad controls a game. Kone has more than doubled that number every season except 2013/2014. The ability to get a field switching long ball quickly under control is an underrated skill and when received in an open wide area puts extra pressure on the opponent's defense.
And putting pressure on the entirety of an opponent's defense is precisely what's been missing in Everton's attack for much of the season. When Everton have been unable to find those decisive goals that they earn through the run of play, it is often because opponents are pinching up against Gerard Deulofeu and shutting down attacks the Toffees try to build along the right. Having two true wide players (a drum we've been beating all year) would allow more flexibility in attack. It would also clear space for Barkley and Cleverley (or McCarthy) to roam in the middle of the field. Both players are better operating centrally in space.
It would potentially help solve another issue as well. One of the weaknesses of being so reliant on fullbacks to provide width is that we leave ourselves dangerously exposed to counterattack. We saw this problem play out devastatingly against Leicester City last week. Playing Baines at winger naturally brings Brendan Galloway back into the starting XI. If Galloway leaves something to be desired offensively, the positioning, composure and graft he brings defensively are a huge asset. It also obviously means that we'll have the best defender at left wing that we've had in a long while. Baines would be a marked improvement over Mirallas, Kone and everyone else we'd thrown over there.
Most importantly, Baines at left wing would provide additional service to our most important asset - Romelu Lukaku. Anyone who has watched Baines play should have an idea of skilled he is delivering the ball into the box. Just to put a point on it though - Baines is the Premier League's all time leader in assists from the full back position, with 43 in his career. Less defensive responsibility could result in more offensive opportunity.
It may be a risk, but Baines at left wing is an option Everton should consider exploring.