Currently, the English national side seem to be undergoing a transitional phase before embarking on Euro 2012. Frank Lampard, despite playing against Wales, appears to have moved to the periphery of Fabio Capello's thinking, and many other established internationals, such as John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, are beginning to find their own selection far more scrutinised. With the likes of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Andy Carroll all coming through, the 2010 World Cup may have finally marked the end for many of England’s alleged golden generation.
However, at left-back, despite the meteoric rise of Leighton Baines over the past few seasons, Ashley Cole remains certain to start. Is this still a fair reflection of the England pecking order? If Baines, at 26, were four years younger, would he not have ousted the 30-year-old on potential by now?
One fact to boost Baines’ inclusion is that, before the Bulgaria game last week, from the left hand side of the pitch England had only managed a crossing accuracy of 8.5% in Euro 2012 Qualifiers. Renowned as one of the Premier League’s most potent crossers, the introduction of Baines to the team would surely augment this. However, it is for an all round game that many assume Cole keeps his starting berth.
Therefore this must be delved into. Is Cole’s continued presence simply based on his reputation, or is he still producing? By comparing Premier League stats from last season for both players, a fair synopsis can be constructed. As you can see, the results are rather striking.
Baines outdoes Cole in almost every single category, including other less significant areas that do not even make this list. Obviously, as these stats demonstrate, Baines is the better attacker. His production last season was outstanding for a defender. That is reflected here by his goals tally, and the 74 chances he created, almost doubling the chances composed by Cole. In fact, by mid-April last season, only one player viewed as a defender (Dani Alves), playing in England, Spain, Italy or Germany, could beat his haul of 27 assists since the 2008/09 season. In this period, Cole has recorded only 11. Incredibly, only four Premier League players could surpass that amount.
This startling attacking information was revealed on Everton’s website in April, where it was also shown how Baines was incredibly involved in 31% of Everton’s 45 goals at that point of the season. He also had the fifth highest count of assists by any player across Europe, regardless of position.
His supreme attacking prowess is further illustrated by every attacking category on this chart. Cole does not get close to him and therefore cannot even enter into a discussion about who is the better attacking full-back? Most impressively he boasts a crossing success rate of 28% from a multitude of deliveries, a percentage guaranteed to enhance England’s meagre production from the left.
Defensively is where most would presume Cole should triumph. However, again Baines trumps his rival across the board. Most surprisingly is the fact that Cole, revered by many wingers as one of the toughest opponents to beat in the game, was dribbled past 38 times last season. Once a game! Baines was only beaten 24 times.
Cole did make marginally more tackles over the season (16), but only won two out of three, whilst Baines was successful three out of four times. Amusingly, despite his diminutive frame of 170 cm, being the tenth smallest player to play in the Premier League last season, Baines somehow even won more in the air than Cole, who stands 6 cm taller.
The only area Cole gains some supremacy over Baines is with his passing accuracy, and his infrequent loss of possession. Presumably the hordes of crosses Baines sends in contributes to this, but Cole’s passing percentage of 89% is one of the best in the Premier League. Fabio Capello is known to blow a gasket whenever England loose possession, so this seems to be an aspect likely to aid Cole’s selection. Conversely, this stat can still be negated by the fact that Cole passed 21% of his passes backwards, with barely half going forwards, numbers the attack minded Baines can top, as 72% of his went forward and just 14% back.
Therefore there is scarcely a category where Cole overcomes Baines at all, in fact, Everton’s star player dominates the Chelsea left-back. So why would Cole remain first choice? With the England manager rarely giving his full-backs licence to bomb forward, Ashley Cole’s perceived defensive abilities, as well as his reputation and experience, have always given him the nod. He has started more competitive games under Fabio Capello than any other player. Yet on current form, surely this should change? Baines offers a superior defensive record as well as some truly elite attacking capabilities.
With 91 caps (and starts), to Baines’ five, as well as a wealth of European experience to draw back on, Cole’s selection is still likely to continue. Had Baines been targeted this transfer window by a club in Champions League contention, perhaps his case would be further distinguished. Although he has still had more European outings than Andy Carroll, Phil Jones, Jordan Henderson and many others poised to burst onto the international stage after a big transfer move.
Thankfully for Everton, Baines has remained at Goodison Park, and with Mikel Arteta’s departure, he may become even more integral to the Toffee’s ambitions. For those resorting to Cole’s European fixtures this season as being a factor for his inclusion, are matches against Valencia, Leverkusen and Genk really going to upgrade his game? He is likely to face perhaps one or two major tests if Chelsea go far in the competition, but Baines will still be competing against four sides rated in the top 10 of the Uefa rankings. His Premier League duels would arguably give him a far sterner test then almost all European teams, with the exception of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Each of the top six in the Premier League possess enough talent to rigorously test any player, and success in Europe’s finest division should give ample reason for an individual to be selected for England.
In conclusion, it has evidently come to the point that Fabio Capello must genuinely ponder the selection of Leighton Baines, at the very least, when playing against alleged weaker nations. His integration into the international fold could prove hugely beneficial, especially breaking teams down, as England failed to do at the last World Cup. Against Wales tonight, were Baines not injured, surely he would have offered more value to England overlapping Ashley Young, than Ashley Cole did? He was of course injured, but it seems highly unlikely he would have been included were he fit.
Few can argue Baines is not the better attacking weapon, but as these stats reveal, his defensive qualities, perhaps because of his size, are genuinely underrated. Whilst Cole played against Wales, and still seems destined to wear the England number three shirt for some considerable time, clearly, as these stats comprehensively signify, it is time to give Baines far more minutes on the international stage.