Left Back: The One Position Where the England National Team Has So Much Talent
There has been much ballyhoo throughout the entire soccer world about England having trouble developing its talent, especially compared to rivals Spain and Germany at the moment.
Many have snickered at the Three Lions’ international performances throughout the last several years, since they were blitzed by Germany in that 2010 World Cup round of 16 match. And this past summer, the criticism inside and outside the country further intensified after the dreadful performances by both the Under-21s in Israel and the U-20 World Cup side in Turkey.
But England have done something that no other country in the world have been able to do at the moment, an under the radar achievement that definitely deserves its recognition. It’s something that surely could benefit them next summer in Brazil and for many years to come, and abate a few of the stories that the country who created the game is having trouble inventing significant talent in the modern age.
England have the best group of left backs in the world. Better than Spain, better than Germany, better than Brazil. Better than everyone else.
For how countries can go many years without having even a solid class left back, let alone a world class one, England have been blessed with having at least four top left backs, with two certainly having the right to say they have the label of being world class.
Those obviously two world class players are the moment are standouts Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines, who are still embroiled in that great battle to be the starting left back. Considering the incredible emergence of Baines over the last few seasons from solid Premier League player to a true star, the 100th plus capped Cole has done remarkably well to still hold a spot he has held for over 11 years — especially when Baines seems to score free kick goals for fun.
Cole has been one of the few bright spots in the rocky return for Jose Mourinho to Chelsea, but knows that he has no margin for error with both club (more on that later) and country with Baines forever nipping at his heels.
But what makes England’s depth remarkable at left back is not just Baines being able to replace Cole with no problem if something were to happen to the former Arsenal man, but the depth that has emerged right behind Baines. And the next two in that order reside in North London.
Kieran Gibbs matured over the last few years into a dependable squad player for Arsene Wenger. He has now blossomed into a standout full back in England, with his excellent early start to the season. The 23-year-old Lambeth native has comprehensively swatted away challenges from Andre Santos and Nacho Monreal to become the perfect replacement at left back for the Emirates club since Gael Clichy departed to Manchester City in 2011.
He was already adept for a few years at knowing when to help Arsenal in attack, but Gibbs cemented his growth as a pure defender in winning a great youth battle against Andros Townsend in their 1-0 win over rivals Spurs a few weeks back and his great last ditch efforts to preserve their Champions League opening win against Marseille.
Gibbs’ quality is so good at the moment that he could make a case for starting for even the likes of Italy at left back, who haven’t found a left back as good as Fabio Grosso in years, let alone the legend Paolo Maldini.
But Gibbs may not even be England’s third best left back, as across town at Tottenham stands the ever emerging Danny Rose. Gibbs was witness to how Rose showed why he would be a major factor in England circles for years to come with his stunning low distance goal in his league debut against none other than Arsenal in April 2010. That special finish was nominated “Goal of the Season” by Sky Sports and propelled Tottenham to a 2-1 win over Arsenal, a victory that factored in heavily to securing a Champions League top four finish that year.
With Benoit Assou-Ekotto and possibly Kyle Naughton ahead of him at left back, Rose knew he needed permanent starting time to continue his development. After injuries saw Harry Redknapp having to bring him back from his loan spell at Bristol City early, Rose shined again for Spurs when Assou-Ekotto was unavailable with his own ailments in the last three games of the 2010-2011 season. Still, with Assou-Ekotto, a returning Naughton for Norwich, and the incoming Jan Vertonghen, Rose knew he needed another loan move in order to permanently be Spurs’ first choice left back in the future.
A loan move to Sunderland was granted last season and Rose again impressed throughout the entire campaign, right after also gaining further plaudits for his performances with Great Britain at the London Olympics. With all of that confidence and experience of quality play gained, Rose returned to Tottenham and continued his steady rise. The inconsistent Naughton was dropped to the bench despite Andre Villas Boas liking him, and Rose has become a true force for Spurs on the left. In fact, him and Kyle Walker could give Tottenham the best full back combination in the Premier League. Yet unlike Walker, who is in his own great battle with Glen Johnson for the starting England right back position, Rose would need unfortunate injuries or an unlikely sharp dip in form from at least Cole and Baines to make it to Brazil.
Amazingly enough, England’s depth continues at that much coveted left back position with a few sensational youngsters who would be first choice for many nations.
Cole’s teammate Ryan Bertrand, if he was a different nationality, would be snapped up by the likes of the United States, Mexico, and maybe even Belgium (with no offense to the quality Vertonghen) to start in the left back position. All Bertrand did to prove his great talent was start in his first Champions League match in the final at Bayern Munich and be a pivotal reason why Roberto Di Matteo, Roman Abramovich, and Chelsea were European Champions, and why Bayern suffered the long lasting agony of losing the ultimate match at home.
But with Cole holding his Stanford Bridge left back spot with as much stinginess as his iron grip with the national team position, Bertrand may have to start thinking about his options of getting first team action if he isn’t in Mourinho’s plans. His versatile ability to play as a left winger will help, but he has found it very difficult so far to even be on the bench in the early days of The Special One’s second London era.
And yet, despite those five great talents, England still have more options at left back. Luke Shaw continues to impress under Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton and was terrific in the Saints’ 1-0 victory at Liverpool to the Reds’ premature title ambitions. The 18-year-old is incredibly still under the radar for being the latest Saints youth prodigy, with the depth ahead of him at left back in the division being a reason why.
A shout-out is also deserved for Aston Villa 22-year-old Nathan Baker, who after loan spells with Lincoln City and Millwall over the last few years, has been being a regular choice for Paul Lambert’s side. In another country, Baker would be in the starting 11. But with the competition around his age at the position, he may never get a single cap with England after doing so with the U19s, U20s, and U21s.
It’s quite an incredible achievement for England to have this much depth for one of the hardest positions in soccer to find talent. Considering how England still has to improve with their youth development compared to the current elite like Spain, Germany, and Brazil, it’s one feather in the cap that England should be proud of. Spain, Germany and Brazil would love to have the incredible depth at left back that England possesses at the moment.