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Everton’s Leighton Baines replacement strategy

The club is looking to add a left-back this summer — but is it the right one?

Everton v Southampton - Premier League
Leighton Baines of Everton takes part in the lap of honour with his children
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Most Everton supporters have been saying it for a number of years now, but watching Cuco Martina at left-back for chunks of last year certainly solidified it — Everton needs a Leighton Baines replacement plan.

The English left-back has been an outstanding servant to the club for a decade now, and the 2018-19 season will mark his 12th season in Everton blue. He’s still a solid player, even if not quite the fullback he was in his prime, but Father Time leaves no man behind.

Baines is 33 right now, and turns 34 in November. He’s been a regular starter for his team every season since his 2003-04 breakout with Wigan Athletic, so there are a lot of miles on those legs.

While I recognize his age and the need to have a new plan at left-back moving forward, I find Everton’s rumored interest in left-backs to be somewhat...peculiar. It isn’t that the club shouldn’t be interested in left-backs — it definitely should.

But its approach has me a little confused. In Antonee Robinson, Everton has a left-back who was outstanding for a pretty miserable Bolton Wanderers side last year, and has recently gotten looks in the USMNT international setup. At just 20 years old, he appears to have real potential.

So it would seem strange to me to add a new, young left-back who would likely be handed the lion’s share of the left-back starts — completely taking Robinson out of the picture — unless the left-back was an overwhelmingly obvious improvement over what Baines brings right now.

A multitude of names have been thrown about in the last couple of months: Jordan Lukaku, Dalbert Henrique, Kieran Tierney, Luke Shaw, Lucas Digne, Wendell, and Marvin Plattenhardt among others.

So, let’s take a look at how three of the recently-linked, more-likely left-backs stack up to Baines, and try to understand to what extent a move like this might be sensible.

General Stats

Player Age Games Started (Subs) Minutes Played Goals Assists
Player Age Games Started (Subs) Minutes Played Goals Assists
Leighton Baines 33 22 1910 2 3
Jordan Lukaku 23 10 (20) 1345 1 2
Wendell 24 26 2529 2 3
Marvin Plattenhardt 26 33 2970 0 7

Two things probably jump out from this precursory overview of the players and their 2017-18 seasons.

First, Leighton Baines is substantially older than the players Everton seems to consider as a possible replacement. Naturally, that makes sense.

Second, Plattenhardt’s assist totals — seven in 2017/18 — really jump off the page. Those numbers have put him toward the front of some Evertonian wish lists, but his performance last season does need to be taken with a grain of salt.

His expected assists (xA) total from last year was only 3.43 per Understat — actually his lowest xA totals in three years as a regular at Hertha Berlin. He had three assists in 2016-17 and four in 2015-16, which is much more in line with what his underlying creative stats would suggest.

Let’s continue thinking about underlying creative contributions. Below, I’ve created a table of three key attacking stats per 90 minutes played — leveling the playing field in terms of overall volume of playing time.

Attacking Per 90

Player Key Passes Crosses Complete Crossing Accuracy
Player Key Passes Crosses Complete Crossing Accuracy
Leighton Baines 1.1 1 28.50%
Jordan Lukaku 1.5 1.3 26.50%
Wendell 1.1 0.8 27.60%
Marvin Plattenhardt 1 1.5 25%

You’ll notice that most of these numbers are... basically the same. Lukaku’s 1.5 key passes per 90 stands out, but he actually played primarily as a left midfielder for Lazio last season, so you’d expect him to have more chances to play passes leading to chances.

Outside of that, everything is pretty uniform — each player has around 1 key pass per 90, 1 cross complete per 90, and crossing accuracy between 25% and 28%.

To complete our comparison, we’ll have to take a look at each player’s defensive stats. I hate comparing the defensive stats of a player on one team to one at another club, because defensive stats are so dependent on individual club ability and style.

So, I present these numbers not as an outstanding marker of defensive ability, because you simply can’t do that with just these type of numbers. Instead, I want to look for anything that seems to vary extensively from the average that couldn’t be explained by just slight difference between club’s approaches.

Defensive Per 90

Player Tackles Dribbled Past Interceptions Clearances
Player Tackles Dribbled Past Interceptions Clearances
Leighton Baines 1.5 0.5 1.2 2.2
Jordan Lukaku 1.9 0.4 1.2 1.3
Wendell 2.3 1.1 1.2 2
Marvin Plattenhardt 1.7 0.5 0.8 2.2

Nothing in this table strikes me as particularly out of the ordinary. Baines, Lukaku, and Plattenhardt have tackle numbers between 1.5 and 2, with dribbled past numbers around 0.5.

Wendell’s numbers in each of those categories are a little bit higher, but both are above the average to equivalent extents — a sign that he was simply asked to defend against a higher volume of chances at Bayer Leverkusen than the other defenders — but his rate of tackle success is pretty similar to the others.

I think the numbers on this are pretty clear — none of the left-backs Everton is reportedly interested in are a significant improvement over Leighton Baines.

If the club doesn’t believe that Antonee Robinson is going to be a Premier League quality player — or at least not any time soon — then adding one of these players this summer might be sensible.

If Robinson is thought to be the real deal though, it seems that perhaps rather than pursuing a future, starting left-back, the club would be better served finding somebody who would be content with a rotation-type position going forward.