With Fabio Capello set to name his final squad before deciding on the shortlist for the World Cup finals, A Different League looks at two of the country’s left-backs pushing Wayne Bridge and Ashley Cole for a spot at South Africa.
Everton’s left-back has been one of the club’s most consistent performers in a topsy-turvy season, producing a string of impressive displays leaving him well worth talk of a first England cap.
The Everton No 3 has featured regularly for David Moyes, appearing in 33 of a possible 37 games – a tally matched only by Tim Cahill and bettered by just Tim Howard. The departure of Joleon Lescott left Everton short at left-back, but Baines’ performances have meant the lack of depth in that position has not been a worry, and with just a brief spell out through injury in late autumn, Baines has been reliable for the vast majority of the season.
Baines’ combination with Steven Pienaar down Everton’s left-wing has often been the Blues’ most potent attacking weapon, their neat passing interchanges creating space for either to reach the touch-line and produce a cross. Baines’ impressive forward surges come thanks to Pienaar looking to take the ball inside on to his stronger right foot, leaving the left flank free, and if Capello persists with Gerrard in that position similar opportunities would arise for Baines. Although he lacks the attacking instinct Cole displayed before injury, he still rates as one of the top attacking full-backs in the Premier League. It is often Baines that finds himself in position to play the ball across goal and the former Wigan Athletic player’s delivery is consistent but also intelligent, often drilling the ball with pace as opposed to floating it towards the far post, ensuring the slightest of touches is enough to divert the ball towards goal. Everton do not have the biggest attack in the league and Baines’ whipped crosses give the Toffees a greater chance of scoring as they did against Tottenham Hotspur in December, thanks to Baines keeping the ball alive. He blasted Seamus Coleman’s cross back across goal and Cahill was on hand to score a vital equaliser. Baines has five assists to his name so far in this season’s Premier League, whilst also giving away only 13 free-kicks, being booked twice.
In the absence of Mikel Arteta, Baines was often tasked with taking Everton’s corners but too often failed to produce a decent delivery, perhaps because of Everton’s tactic of aiming corners at the near post, making the flag-kicks easy to defend on occasion. When the corner is perfect it is almost impossible to defend but should Baines get an international call, he is unlikely to leap to the top of the set-piece pecking order with Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Beckham around. He is a danger from free-kicks, with his left-footed efforts capable of finding the net as he did against Portsmouth last year but this season other players have overtaken the diminutive defender in the free-kick ladder. Penalties are a different matter, with Baines frequently given the responsibility from 12 yards. This season he has netted twice from the spot, a 94th minute winner against former club Wigan in August and an even later effort to seal a 3-1 win over Carlisle United last month. Baines also converted in a tense FA Cup semi-final shootout with Manchester United last season, an impressive record that could be useful in the World Cup’s latter stages.
Standing at a touch under 5’7, Baines lack of height was played upon by Arsenal earlier in the season, when Nicklas Bendtner constantly pulled wide for diagonal balls that Baines was forced to contest with the 6’4” Dane. Unsurprisingly, the Arsenal No 52 was successful every time and it cost Everton dearly as they collapsed to a 6-1 defeat. While that was obviously not the only reason for the Blues’ hammering, it was a factor that contributed to a bad day all round. Baines is only just smaller than Ashley Cole, with the Chelsea full-back having two inches on the Kirkby-born star, and Fabio Capello is unlikely to overly concern himself with Baines’ stature but opposing managers could relish putting their burly target man against the little left-back.
Should Baines be added to the squad for the friendly with Egypt, it will be just reward for a solid season and so far Baines has shown the consistency to impress against the African champions and throughout the rest of the season. The 25-year-old has come of age in 2009/10, playing with a maturity missing in previous years, no longer forgoing his defensive duties in favour of joining attacks and as a result, his positioning has improved markedly. Baines has also captained Everton this season, wearing the armband against AEK Athens and would provide another strong voice in a dressing room full of leaders and an assured presence on the field.