When the news broke that Ashley Cole was out of England’s crucial game against Montenegro and possibly the team’s next fixture against Poland, the hyperbole that usually accompanies the withdrawal of a key England player was unnervingly absent. It wasn’t splashed across the back pages, it wasn’t the top of the hour story on sports news channels and it wasn’t really a major talking point on the usual social media platforms.
The understated reaction to Cole’s withdrawal is certainly no slant on the Chelsea man. But perhaps more of a nod towards the calibre of his potential replacement; Leighton Baines.
The Everton man’s displays down the left-hand side for his blue employers have earned him many admirers in recent years. Most notably those who pick the Premier League team of the year (in which Baines has featured the last two consecutive seasons), his own supporters, who voted Baines as their player of the season at the conclusion of the last campaign and Manchester United, who courted his signature relentlessly throughout the summer months.
And yet, despite his superb showings, Baines has never been able to usurp the immovable Cole when it comes to the national team.
Roy Hodgson has flirted with the idea of playing Baines ahead of Cole, and often in friendlies, the introduction of the former Wigan-player at left-back has been the England manager’s first change. But Hodgson is a cautious manager by default, and for the crunch games he has stuck with the reliable, trustworthy figure of Cole.
Not that there is any travesty in that. Cole, after all, remains a fine player and one of the world’s outstanding left-backs. Let’s not forget, he has won the lot at club level, and his haul of 105 international caps needs no aggrandizing. His achievements really do speak for themselves.
But at this juncture, there is a growing belief that Baines has played himself up to a level by which he is quite simply the better player of the two. And a couple of strong performances in the next two games might just see Everton’s most indispensible asset become a permanent fixture in the England first team too.
For some, it would be a shift that has been a long time coming, and it begs the question, why hasn’t Baines been given a proper chance? Is it down entirely to Hodgson’s patent for solidarity and defensive caution?
There is a common conception that Baines might not be as strong as Cole from a defensive point of view. But a glance at this season’s statistics suggests there is very little to separate the two. Granted, we’re only seven games into the current campaign, but even if you factor in the figures from the 2012/13 Premier League, the Evertonian made more tackles, more successful tackles, blocked more shots and intercepted more balls than Cole.
Their 2013/14 defensive stats are as follows:
|Ashley Cole||Leighton Baines|
|Times Dribbled Past||6||3|
We can split hairs over their defensive attributes, but there is little room for debate when talk turns to attacking contribution, for Baines comprehensively outshines Cole. His energetic, persistent bursts forward and devilish left-foot are a much envied combination for a full-back. They remained prominent throughout the course of the last campaign too, with Baines featuring in every single minute of Premier League action for the Toffees.
Cole still picks his moments to get forward with considered, intelligent purpose, but his attacking influence has certainly dwindled since he’s entered his thirties. He still makes contributions in the attacking third, but figures show that Baines trumps Cole in every attacking facet. Last season, somewhat remarkably for a defender, Baines actually created 115 chances for his Everton teammates, the most of any player in European football.
The attacking stats for the two players, for the 2013/14 season thus far, are:
|Ashley Cole||Leighton Baines|
And he’s not bad at sticking chances away either, especially with a dead-ball at his feet. His pinpoint accuracy from set-plays is unparalleled in the England squad, and skipper Steven Gerrard admitted he will happily relinquish set-piece duties in favor of his fellow Merseysider. Understandably so, as we’ve already seen this season that Baines can make match winning contributions with a swing of his left boot. Or perhaps with two swings, as West Ham United supporters will attest to.
Most importantly, these games will give Baines the opportunity to show that Hodgson can rely on him when it comes to the big occasion. He has the talent, and has been superior to Cole in the Premier League for at least the previous two campaigns. But, performing for England comes with a lot of pressure. Especially in games of this magnitude, and this is where Cole undoubtedly has the edge on the Everton man.
Baines was left out of England’s 2010 World Cup squad somewhat unfairly after comments about feeling homesick on a previous U21 tour. It was an incident that left many questioning whether or not the mentality is there for him to succeed at international level, especially when compared to an experienced, successful figure like Cole. But he’s continued to grow since then. It has gone somewhat unnoticed, but that is in no small part down to the understated, laid-back aura that he exudes.
It’ll be a big night for Baines. Crumble, and he may be in Cole’s shadow for a while yet. Shine, and it’s tough to make a case against him starting next summers showpiece. Should England qualify, of course.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball