Easily one of Everton’s most consistent and reliable players, Leighton Baines put forward yet another solid year at the left back position. Despite his age increasing, and athleticism declining, Baines has found ways to adapt and continues to be a useful player for Ronald Koeman.
Set-piece delivery and crossing have always been the hallmarks of Leighton Baines’ game and this season was no different. And even as his athleticism begins to leave him, Baines has remained one of the better passers on the team, ranking in the top-three in key passes per game.
The days of Baines bombing up and down the left flank and likely behind him, but he has fashioned himself into a different, yet still effective kind of full back. His tendency to overlap seems to have diminished, opting instead to take the ball a little further back in the offensive third. Here he has turned into something of a holding midfielder on the wing. Quick, short passes with the winger or defensive midfielder have become the norm, probing the defense for open holes. But when the opportunity arises, Baines is still fully capable of delivering a pinpoint cross to the box.
Ever since Baines and Seamus Coleman became the regular full back duo for Everton their play has been a major weapon for the team. Both players were capable of getting forward, overloading the wings and delivering accurate balls into the box. But in recent seasons the reliance on this duo has been exposed.
This issue became evident when Coleman went down with an injury while on duty with the Republic of Ireland. Without Coleman’s athleticism on the right, Everton no longer had a full back who could reliably stretch the opposing full back. Mason Holgate, for all his positives, is clearly a center back at heart and was rarely able to move deep into the attacking third. Everton was now left with two full backs who were unable to reliable overlap and made it more difficult for the wingers to cut inside and be effective.
After an injury riddled campaign last season, Baines was able to play in 32 of the 38 matches this season. If Ronald Koeman chooses to implement the 3-5-2 again next season, Baines should be able have a few more effective seasons for the Toffees. With the decreased defensive responsibility of the 3-5-2, Baines was able to put his offensive skills to much better use and avoid the weekly defensive grind of playing full back.
Baines will likely be the starting left back for Everton for the foreseeable future. As things stand right now, there is no clear successor to his spot on the roster. Brendan Galloway offers the same lack of offensive skill that Holgate does at right back. Luke Garbutt, who was once considered the heir apparent to Baines’ spot, has languished in the Championship since his breakthrough a few years ago.
While Baines may be slowing down, he can still be a very effective player for this squad over the next few years.
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