There aren’t many nations in the world who are blessed with two left backs with the quality of Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines. Both of these left backs have credible cases to be England’s first choice.
Chelsea stalwart Cole has been first choice now for almost a decade and having now passed the 100 cap mark looks to still be the number one option at left back having started against Montenegro but he is by no means still an automatic pick. Baines has had a truly exceptional season at Champions League qualification contenders Everton in both the attacking and defensive sense.
The main claim for Baines to become the regular England left back is that he is the greater attacking threat. This becomes even more potent when you take into account the Everton man’s set piece ability, both at shooting and crossing. For starters, he has created 93 chances this season compared to Cole’s 16 and his link up with Steven Pienaar down the left, particularly in the first half of the season, has been exceptional. He has also assisted four goals to Cole’s two and scored five goals himself compared to just one from the Chelsea left back. There is no doubt that Baines’ strength is in the attacking third of the pitch, he is one of the most creative players in the whole of the Premier League, an extremely rare quality in a left back. He showed glimpses of this ability against the minnows of San Marino in the recent qualifier, which isn’t the greatest of teams to test your ability against but he was exceptional nonetheless. Having said all this you cannot discount Cole’s attacking ability as he was for a long time known for his long marauding runs up the left hand side but in the last couple of seasons, no one in the Premier League can compare to Baines in this area.
However, it is Baines’ defensive work this season that deserves more recognition than it gets, it has improved dramatically from last year. Baines’ tackle success rate is 82% and although his heading success is a mere 39%, we can probably put that down to the Everton man’s lack of height. Cole’s tackle success rate is only 75% but he has a greater header success rate than Baines at 58%. This proves that Cole is still the more rounded defender of the two. Baines has never been known for these qualities but as these statistics show, he has become a lot more rounded in the defensive third than he used to be.
Cole’s worth to Chelsea has not diminished having signed a new deal in January and he has been as ever extremely consistent at club and international level. It is Cole’s consistency and most of all experience that are the only things standing in the way of Baines’ push for the left back birth. Cole’s claim to the left back position should definitely not be dismissed but in the era of attacking full backs there is no doubt Baines deserves to start more internationals and perhaps if he moved to a club who challenges for the title he would get those opportunities. In the past Baines himself has said that he can never get in ahead of Cole due to the fact he has never played Champions League football. The gap between the two is narrowing and maybe next season it will narrow even further if Baines were to get Champions League football at Everton or elsewhere. It is an almost impossible decision to choose between the two if you take everything into account but at this moment Cole’s experience at international level gives him the edge in the big England games. However, if the Everton full back continues his current form, it will surely not be long before Roy Hodgson has no choice but to play Baines.
Let me know your views on this debate. Who should start for England at left back with the World Cup in mind?