By Ewan Roberts
No fixture this weekend is quite as alluring as Everton v Chelsea. Fifth place versus third, London’s top team against the dominant force on Merseyside, ex-Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez’s first trip to Goodison Park as manager of the incumbent Champions League holders. But perhaps most interesting of all is the battle for the title of the Premier League’s best left-back.
In the blue corner there is Everton’s Leighton Baines, and in the, erm, other blue corner is Chelsea’s Ashley Cole. While one’s reputation has been steadily increasing, the other’s has been on a downward spiral.
Baines is a mutton-chopped, unassuming home bird. The Kirkby-born left-back, whose style and appearance feel like they should be shot exclusively in sepia, has shunned the spotlight, rejecting notions of celebrity. He is diligent, hard-working and professional, just like the manager he has worked under since 2007.
At the other end of the spectrum is Cole, the work experience kid shooting, headline-creating, Heat Magazine-occupying, controversy magnet. A flag-bearer for the Baby Bentley boom, Cole has come to represent many of the excesses of the modern footballer.
It is virtually impossible to imagine Baines taking to Twitter to launch an asterisk-ridden rant aimed at the Football Association, or almost crashing his car in incensed disbelief when told that he’d been offered a mere £55,000-a-week contract.
Yet for all their differences off the pitch, the two players have been trading blows (metaphorically of course) on the pitch in the battle to determine the league, and England’s, best left-back.
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Cole has had that title bestowed upon him for almost a decade. The Arsenal academy product has won practically everything it is possible to win at club level, from the Premier League to the Champions League, and has more FA Cup medals (seven) than any other player.
A single cap shy of 100 for the Three Lions, Cole has also consistently been one of few England players to leave a major international tournament with his pedigree confirmed rather than questioned.
But for a player with such a huge reputation as an attacking weapon, Cole’s goals and assists hauls have rarely wowed – his strike against Stoke earlier this season was only his first goal in 28 months. Rather, it is his defensive ability, his powers of recovery, that have transcended those of his peers.
Cole is adept at sniffing out danger, anticipating threats before they develop and extinguishing them in their infancy. He is exceptionally good at covering his centre-backs, at being in the right place at the right time, at making goal-line clearances, and is rarely beaten in a one-on-one duel with an opposition winger.
Defensively, Cole remains superb – as was the case in Chelsea’s heroic Champions League run – but as an attacking weapon he has become increasingly blunt, especially in comparison to Baines.
The Everton full-back has established himself as not only the league’s most dynamic full-back, but one of the most potent left-sided players in world football. As a result, he has been linked with moves to clubs as grand and prestigious as Manchester United and Bayern Munich, while Chelsea appear content to offload Cole at the end of his current deal.
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Though Marouane Fellaini has hogged most of the plaudits on Merseyside, Baines has been consistently outstanding yet again this season. He’s a whirlwind of blustering attacking verve, marauding up the flank and spitting out deadly accurate deliveries.
No player in the Premier League, or Europe’s top five leagues, has played more key passes (65) than Baines – that is 30% more than David Silva, the division’s next best creator. Since August 2010, no left-back in Europe has recorded more assists (15) or created more chances (one every 39.6 minutes) than the 28-year-old.
Baines has played more accurate crosses (58) than any other player too, though his goals and assists return has dipped compared to his benchmark 2010-11 season, where he produced a staggering five goals and 11 assists in the league.
With the game narrower, with inside forwards and centre-seeking playmakers regularly deployed on the flanks (in fact, of the 22 players to have assisted four or more goals this season, only two are out-and-out wingers: Damien Duff and Aaron Lennon), the onus has been placed on full-backs to provide width and telling deliveries – and Baines has become masterful at doing just that.
He hugs the touchline, darts into space, can float in a cross from deep or fizz a low delivery into the box from the byeline. His energy and willingness to relentlessly burst forward and lay siege to the penalty area is almost unparalleled, an unstoppable gale with a ferocious left boot.
It is worth noting the importance of Baines’ partnership with Steven Pienaar at this point. While Cole can operate independently from the players around him (which is rather twinned with his reputation as a soloist mercenary), Baines is a far better player when paired with the Toffees’ South African playmaker.
That is not to say Baines is totally dependent on Pienaar, but the two players have an almost telepathic understanding, with Pienaar drifting infield and opening up space for his full-back to overlap into, shunning personal glory to serve and supply Baines.
Once the reference point for left-backs across the globe, the 32-year-old Cole has since lost much of his attacking sparkle and though he remains a solid defender, has been usurped by the barnstorming, swashbuckling and ultra-creative Baines, who is re-defining the attacking merits of full-backs.
The king is dead, long live the king.
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