An ankle injury to Ashley Cole means Leighton Baines is poised to win his tenth cap for his country in England’s World Cup qualifier against Moldova. In any normal circumstance this would be viewed as a chance to impress and stake a claim, yet Baines knows that regardless of how he fares, Ashley Cole’s esteemed reputation will see him slot straight back in once fully fit. Despite contributing sustained excellence over a number of seasons at Everton, the aura around Cole often masks the club exploits of Baines. The Chelsea man has kept a firm grip on the England left-back jersey for over a decade now, but is it time to examine Baines’ credentials a little closer?
Cole is undoubtedly a world-class performer, who has been one of the nation’s most consistent players throughout his international career. Few wingers can ever say they have consistently bettered him and at major tournaments he is often one of the few to excel in an England shirt. However, there are certainly some who feel the creative element Baines brings is something England should become flexible enough to utilise at international level, especially considering the less adventurous opposition now on the schedule. With Roy Hodgson’s side often likely to be facing organised defences as opposed to potent forwards, there will be instances where Baines’ attacking strengths could prove more beneficial than Cole’s defensive ability. Is it therefore time the national side adopted a more situational policy for the left-back berth?
This argument takes shape once Baines’ statistics are fully dissected and viewed against Cole’s. Here is a look at what both left-backs have achieved at their clubs over the past two years up to the start of this present season, starting with defensive statistics.
Both record impressive numbers in each category. Much of Cole’s reputation has been forged on the supremacy he enjoys over most wingers trying to take him on, and his stature at the back certainly shines through. Playing in a more successful side at Chelsea, he has predictably conceded fewer goals, but is also more prolific contesting 50-50s and all challenges in general. So far this season, only four players have made more tackles than Cole.
Baines is hardly cast aside in these results and has actually intercepted more, tackled better and somehow even managed to win more in the air – despite being one of the smallest players in the Premier League. However the most striking revelation is the ‘Dribbled Past’ category, in which Cole was dribbled past 67 times over this two-year stretch. His ratio is slightly below average and he would be looking for something around 50, as fellow left-backs Patrice Evra (52) and Gael Clichy (48) record.
The fact Baines halves Cole’s tally, with a stingy 34, highlights just how sturdy his technique is when matched up one-on-one against the best in the top flight. His impressive surges forward often deflect attention away from some robust performances at the back, and while his defensive numbers won’t sway anyone into thinking he should definitively start over Cole, they certainly suggest England would not be substantially weakened with him in the team.
However, going forward it’s a different matter.
This is where the argument for Baines’ inclusion gathers pace, as his production in attack is simply elite. Cole first gained his reputation at Arsenal as an adventurous, energetic left-back, constantly yo-yoing up and down the pitch enabling Robert Pires to tuck in and exploit an extra man advantage in midfield. However, this has very much become Baines’ forte now, and he leads the way for attacking English full-backs.
Whilst Cole passes more at a more possession-absorbing side, Baines triumphs in every other category and most by a considerable margin. Comfortable attacking at pace down the flank, he dribbles almost twice as often and more successfully than Cole. His crossing skills are also superior and his continued desire to bomb forward and overlap is reflected by a significantly more constant supply of precise crosses. 9-0 in the goals tally is also a striking statistic, although a fair few were from dead-ball situations.
Of course, the most important results surround end product, which is where Baines comes into his own and completely eclipses Cole’s contribution. The Everton man has pretty much been a creative deity for a number of seasons now, finishing the last three Premier League campaigns in the top ten for chances created – each time as the division’s leading defender. This season he currently heads the charts, creating four more chances than anyone else in the top flight. According to ‘WhoScored.com’, he is in fact second across all the major European leagues, behind only Wesley Sneijder. The margin of 141 to 68 over two years fully illustrate how upgraded England’s offence could be with Baines on board for certain matches.
It’s once again worth reiterating how much of an elite player Ashley Cole is. This article is certainly not intending to dispute that in any way. After his career he will surely be acknowledged as one of England’s finest and most respected internationals, and it’s perhaps only his occasionally chastised demeanour that prevents him gaining true national admiration now. Whilst his defensive powers are still at the summit of the game, his offensive influence does not measure up to Baines in the slightest, and this is something England should take advantage of. With upcoming home matches against the likes of Poland, Ukraine and Montenegro, all of whom will be defensively well-organised and would settle for a point at Wembley, surely Baines would make far more of an impression breaking them down?
Given his input over the past two years, leaving Baines on the sidelines for England is simply a waste. His creative production is unparalleled among English defenders whilst the defensive side of his game is hugely underrated. His attacking numbers not only lead the way in the Premier League, but compete with the leading creative players around Europe. Given his form, it is too rigid in such a strategically advanced era to simply continue picking Cole in every scenario.
His greater experience and defensive attributes may well mean Cole is still the best option to use for calculated tactical battles against the top nations, or in tough fixtures away from home, but that’s a debate for another day. Pitted against inferior foe, with packed defences and men behind the ball, the emphasis will be on Hodgson’s side to break teams down, score, and earn three points. Clearly unleashing Baines over Cole would drastically enhance England’s threat going forward.
All of the stats from this article have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.com – Subscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) Check out our new Top Stats feature on the Stats Centre which allows you to compare all players in the league & read about new additions to the stats centre.