The loss of Leighton Baines for a month to a fractured toe doesn’t feel like the terminal blow to Everton’s hopes of winning a few games before Christmas that it once would have. Not because the Toffees suddenly have a surfeit of Baines-class left-backs, but because there is a feeling Roberto Martinez will prove ingenious enough to account for the defender’s absence.
Describing Baines as merely a defender is akin to saying Ross Barkley has a bit of potential, or Kevin Mirallas was slightly fortunate not to be sent off against Liverpool. Barkley is the finest talent to come from Everton’s academy since Wayne Rooney, Mirallas should be about to start a three-game ban, and for much of his six-and-a-half years at Goodison Park, Baines has been one of the most influential players in the team.
Baines’ influence reached its apex a year or two ago when, in tandem with Steven Pienaar, he became the creative hub of David Moyes’ team. That form – the goals, the assists – saw Baines recognised as one of the best players in his position in the Premier League, if not the world. Moyes’ departure for Manchester United could have seen Baines make the same journey – and may still in future – but he confirmed his lingering importance with a stunning brace against West Ham earlier this season.
But Everton aren’t quite so reliant on the Baines-Pienaar axis under Martinez. The new man has changed the way Everton play and the emergence of Barkley has given Everton a new dimension – so too the arrival of Romelu Lukaku. Baines will still be missed as the squad doesn’t contain another natural left-back – Bryan Oviedo the closest thing – but second guessing what Martinez will do to cover for Baines is difficult.
Few supporters in the stands realised Baines had fractured a toe late in the first-half against Liverpool; there was confusion when Gerard Deulofeu was brought on in his place a few minutes after the restart. Deulofeu, the dazzling but infuriating young winger on loan from Barcelona, is possibly the least likely candidate to play left-back it’s possible to imagine given his complete lack of defensive nous – only Tim Howard would be less suited, and even that’s debateable – so it was clear a reshuffle was needed.
Gareth Barry eventually dropped into something approaching left-back but it was Steven Pienaar who often appeared to be the deepest player on that side. Barry still moved central to close down the Liverpool midfield and certainly didn’t hug the touchline in the Baines style. It was more of a defensive three, with Barry joining Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin, and Pienaar playing as a wing-back. It was unorthodox, but it worked.
And that’s why Evertonians are generally at ease with Baines’ absence. Martinez is a flexible tactician and after over a decade of the rigid Moyes, it’s refreshing to see such fresh ideas from the touchline. Everton were trailing when Baines went off and were struggling to get back in the game – Martinez’s change had the dual effect of removing an injured player and giving Everton added impetus. It’s the kind of successful substitution that happened rarely under his predecessor.
Oviedo may be brought in at left-back or a back three could be introduced, with Oviedo and Seamus Coleman as wing-backs – the possibilities are many and varied. Martinez’s willingness to change his approach to reflect the realities of the situation means Everton aren’t shaken by an injury as they used to be and look a much better proposition for it.
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