EPL Talk Player Profile: The Search for the League's Best Left Back
As important to a side’s balance – attacking and defending – as the right back is, so too is his not so distant cousin, the marauding (at times) left back. If you missed Football Formations 101 in school, just keep in mind that what the right back does in regards to his footballing duties, the left back mirrors on the opposite flank. A good left back can add dimensions to a side’s options while a world class one can turn those options into domination. Equal parts runner, defender, attacker and supporter, the modern day left back like that of his right back brethren remains an integral piece to the starting XI.
To define its importance, even some of the better left backs in history could barely lace the boots of the best, while the forgettable, well, there’s a reason why memory fails to recapture their footballing exploits. But the legends of the position without a doubt include Denis Irwin of the Manchester United sides of the 90′s, Bixente Lizarazu of France, Bordeaux and Bayern Munich, Germany’s Paul Breitner, Roberto Carlos of Brazil and some guy named Paolo Maldini.
As the position pertains to the Premier League, there are currently a few of the world’s best at left back earning a living in England. While the cream of the crop apply their trade in the Premier League in almost every position, it’s not the upper echelon of footballers I’m overtly concerned with. It’s the depth chart, or lack thereof, of Premier League left backs I’d like to see improve over the next few seasons as the position’s importance continues to evolve.
As Gameweek 6 of the Premier League thrilled and entertained us all, the following twenty players started for their respective clubs at left back.
Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City), Gael Clichy (Arsenal), Nicky Shorey (West Brom), Liam Ridgewell (Birmingham City), Maynor Figueroa (Wigan), Gael Givet (Blackburn), Stephen Crainey (Blackpool), Carlos Salcido (Fulham), Leighton Baines (Everton), Paul Koncheskey (Liverpool), Phil Bardsley (Sunderland), Danny Gabbidon (West Ham), Gareth Bale (Tottenham), Patrice Evra (Manchester United), Paul Robinson (Bolton), Stephen Ward (Wolves), Stephen Warnock (Aston Villa), Jose Enrique (Newcastle) and Danny Collins (Stoke City).
Author’s Note: In my opinion, Gareth Bale is best as a left sided attacking midfielder or winger. For the sake of this analysis, he won’t be considered as one of the league’s best left backs, but will appear in future Player Profile posts featuring wingers.
As we saw with the look at right backs last week, the traditionally bigger English clubs have secured a few of the best in the world currently at the position. Specifically, Chelsea and Manchester United who employ (and deploy for that matter) Ashley Cole and Patrice Evra, respectively. Ashley Cole embodies the modern day left back. He’s as fit as they come, a precise defender with pace, a skilled player on the ball and a good enough attacking option down the left. United’s Evra is similar.
Although at times not as sharp in attack as rival Cole, Evra’s experience as a defender, footballing smarts (Cole nor Evra get caught out in defense they way ‘The Obvious’ picks for right back sometimes do – Liverpool’s Glen Johnson and Manchester City’s Micah Richards) and abilities to conduct those intelligent overlapping runs has solidified his spot as one of the world’s most effective.
How good has Leighton Baines been for Everton recently? Although the club seem to be in the midst of a mini crisis, Baines continues to deliver solid performances for the Toffees. A local lad from Merseyside, Baines made his way to the Premier League via Wigan in 2004-05. Having impressed for the Latics while catching David Moyes’ eye, Baines secured regular first team football with Everton in 2007. He’s a fringe England player because of the depth at the position with Cole, Wayne Bridge and Stephen Warnock, but Baines possesses all the abilities needed to thrive at left back in the Premier League.
Speaking of, Aston Villa’s Stephen Warnock was the player who kept Baines out of the England squad that traveled to South Africa this past summer. Warnock and Baines are similar type left backs while they also face competition in this category from Arsenal’s Gael Clichy. Clichy has arguably taken a step backwards in the last year or so as his once blistering Premier League form for the Gunners was halted by injury. Slowly getting back to his best, Clichy will likely emerge as one of the League’s most experienced left backs.
The In and Out and Bits and Pieces
Manchester City’s Wayne Bridge is a former international level left back yet his recent struggles with fitness, off the field distractions, international retirement and competition in front of him at City have put him on the fringe. Bridge can get caught defensively while he can still produce a trick or two in attack. He’ll need a good run of first team football with good results to realistically be considered as the league’s best, an eventual fate he’s not likely to see.
Liverpool’s Daniel Agger and Paul Koncheskey (who seems to hobble off the pitch every weekend) are decent enough defenders while their blistering pace and attacking prowess will never be what they’re known for. Still, Koncheskey can be a brilliant defender and like John O’Shea from the right back comparison, knows his limitations and strengths as a footballer.
You’ve not forgotten Maynor Figueroa’s goal v Stoke City from last year have you? The Honduran left back for Wigan produced one of those unforgettable moments in the Premier League when he launched a 50 yard strike from his own half into poor, unsuspecting Thomas Sorensen’s goal. It was a brilliant moment for Figueroa who’s known for his powerful left foot and set piece abilities. Gifted with pace and power, Figueroa is a solid shout.
Lastly, Benoit Assou-Ekotto has been good for Spurs this season as support for the aforementioned Gareth Bale. The Cameroon international was Spurs most improved player in 2008-09 (still deciding if that’s a distinguished title to hold) while he continues to hold down the left back spot most weekends. Challenged for left back by Bale until the Welshman so vigorously claimed the left-sided midfield spot and made it his own, Assou-Ekotto is an attack-minded full back with pace to burn.
The Premier League boasts arguably the world’s best left back in Ashley Cole while it’s yet to be known who will emerge to replace him in the coming years, if anyone. The full back position, whether at left or right, remains a vital component to a starting XI regardless of the formation the manager has implemented. His ability to support attacks, create width and defend makes his services rendered worth the price of admission.