The last five years have brought all manner of change at Everton.
New seasons have seen a new owner, new managers, new ideas, new players, but with each campaign there has been one constant: same old left-back.
Since joining from Wigan Athletic in 2007, Leighton Baines has more than repaid the £6 million the Toffees spent on securing his services. In more than 400 appearances in royal blue, his intelligent defending, excellent crossing and eye for the spectacular have made him one of Everton’s best and most loved players since the turn of the millennium.
Yet Baines, set to embark on his twelfth campaign at Everton, may be about to be dethroned. 19 months after the club’s only other recognised left-back, Bryan Oviedo, left for Sunderland, the Goodison hierarchy have finally identified a long-term successor to this position; Barcelona’s Lucas Digne.
As such, it is crucial that Marco Silva begins his Everton tenure at Wolverhampton Wanderers this weekend by stamping his authority on the team sheet. After a somewhat nomadic career so far, Digne has surely not moved to play second fiddle again, as he did at the Camp Nou for two seasons to Jordi Alba. The Frenchman may only just be through the Goodison door, but it would be a retrograde step were he to be benched at Molineux instead of Baines.
Social media is hardly the model arbiter of general consensus, but many Blues accept Baines, 34 in December, is no longer the marauding full-back he was for so many years. The natural loss of his once-frightening pace may well leave him exposed and helpless against two of the league’s quickest wingers, namely Ivan Cavaleiro and Helder Costa, who he may go toe-to-toe with on Saturday.
An absence of an obvious understudy has caused an over-reliance on Baines, whose career is now, naturally at his age, on a downward trajectory. No clearer were the shoddy oversights of last summer’s transfer window laid bare than when a calf injury in November led to Cuco Martina, typically a right-back, deputising for the following four months. Clearly not good enough for the Premier League, Martina’s constant inclusions led to countless painful showings.
Moreover, Saturday’s friendly defeat to Valencia epitomised the extent to which Baines’ powers have waned; for their opener, he failed to pick up Carlos Soler, who squared for Rodrigo to score, and later afforded Cristiano Piccini too much space to cross, enabling Rodrigo to head in the second.
On paper, therefore, the arrival of an accomplished new left-back is sensible, if long overdue. Digne comes with excellent pedigree; at 25, he was included in France’s 2014 World Cup squad and has made more than 40 appearances for Lille, Paris Saint-Germain, Roma and Barcelona, managing seven career goals. Given the astronomical fees shelled out in football today, not least by Everton themselves, a fee of about £20 million should represent good business.
A Goodison regular since childhood, Baines’ love for the club is indisputable, and it is vital that the club retain him, for now as second-choice, and in another capacity long after retirement. But no longer can the Blues allow sentiment to cloud their judgment, as they did with Wayne Rooney last season.
Silva has begun well by banishing the likes of Ashley Williams and Kevin Mirallas, though if he truly is the man to take Everton forward, he must start on Saturday as he means to go on.
Matthew Chandler has signed on at Royal Blue Mersey during this transfer window - please join us in welcoming him to the crew! #WelcomeMatthew