Does Leighton Baines' form mean the end for Ashley Cole?
Everton's attacking defender is breathing down the neck of the 99-cap England veteran
The sight of England's best left-back in west London is nothing new, but when Leighton Baines steps out for Everton at Loftus Road this afternoon, some would suggest it is him, not Ashley Cole, who now warrants that tag.
Baines's dazzling contribution to the Merseysiders' fine start to the season was enough to earn the 27-year-old a starting role ahead of Cole for England's World Cup qualifier against San Marino last week though the Chelsea player was recalled for Wednesday's more difficult fixture in Poland. However, at 31, one must ask if Cole's place can still be guaranteed.
Baines may not have Cole's high profile – his only noteworthy internet contribution has been a music blog on the Goodison club's website – but as an attacking full-back he eclipses the Londoner, according to Andy Hinchcliffe, the last man to fill the left-back berth for Everton and England in the 1990s.
"The best left-back in the country by a long way" is Hinchcliffe's assessment of Baines, whom he considers perfectly equipped for the modern game's fashion for overlapping full-backs.
"If you look at football now with the 4-2-3-1 system there's not many sides that play with natural wide players any more, the game has got quite narrow [and] the full-backs provide the width and become absolutely vital," explains Hinchcliffe, now a Sky analyst. "If you do keep possession well – and Everton do – then your full-backs can become virtually wide midfield players and I think that's why I'd take Baines over Ashley Cole.
"If you get Baines or Cole in the final third in wide areas, I know who I would want over the ball. Cole's first thought would be to control and play back inside, while Baines's would be to control, get it out of his feet and whip a left-footed ball in.
"Cole [pictured] is a very good defender but he doesn't whip crosses in, he doesn't take set-pieces, he doesn't have a left foot like Leighton Baines. Baines is incredibly consistent with his set-pieces," adds Hinchcliffe, whose own dead-ball deliveries were a feature of Everton's 1995 FA Cup success.
The statistics certainly support Hinchcliffe's assessment. For the past three seasons Baines has featured in the League's top dozen creators but he has touched new heights this term. According to the Whoscored.com website, he created 30 scoring chances in Everton's first seven matches – more than any other player in the Premier League and second only to Internazionale's Wesley Sneijder in Europe's big leagues.
He has also attempted over three times as many crosses as Cole and, given that balls from the byline have proved an increasingly profitable source of goals in recent Champions' League campaigns, it is no surprise that Baines's efforts have not gone unnoticed. Bayern Munich were keen on signing him a couple of seasons ago, while there was relief among Evertonians this summer when Manchester United's reported interest came to nothing.
His manager, David Moyes, called him "unplayable" after Everton's 2-2 draw at his old club Wigan a fortnight ago, when his late penalty rescued a point, and Baines's partnership with Steven Pienaar has been pivotal to their team's resurgence since the turn of the year.
Nikica Jelavic, and latterly Kevin Mirallas, may have provided the goal threat that were previously missing from Everton's play but it is Pienaar and Baines who supply the chances for a side who are enjoying their best start since 2004-05.
Gary Neville observed recently that an afternoon struggling to handle the pair precipitated his decision to retire, and their ability to combine was highlighted by Baines's superb recent strike against Newcastle, when he burst into the box on to a Pienaar backheel.
"Those two work as a pair brilliantly because they know Baines is actually a better attacking wide player than Pienaar," says Hinchcliffe. "Pienaar can come infield and Baines comes on the overlap. With Pienaar there it makes [Baines's] life a hell of a lot easier because you know he's a real team player and that's what Everton are built on – the XI is the all-important thing."
QPR's manager Mark Hughes will need no telling about Pienaar's qualities. He wanted to sign him in January before the South African made his initial return to Goodison on loan after 12 unproductive months spent at Tottenham, and he tried again in the summer. Hughes's loss was undoubtedly Moyes's gain.
Everton's passing game picked up and, as a measure of his influence, they scored 26 goals in the 13 League matches in which Pienaar played in 2011-12, compared with 24 in the remaining 25.
That free-scoring form has continued this season. The last time Everton scored 14 goals in their first seven outings was in 1985, when Howard Kendall's side were defending champions. That was a time remembered in Liverpool for the excess of Derek Hatton and his Militant city council; it is a more attractive left-wing act making a noise on Merseyside today.
Queens Park Rangers v Everton is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
Battle of the left-backs 2012-13
Leighton Baines/Ashley Cole
2 Goals 1
10 Tackles attempted 26
10 Tackles won 21
13 Clearances 20
12 Interceptions 13
1 Blocks 2
46 Crosses 17
30 Chances created 7
2 Assists 1
12 Fouls won 5
5 Fouls conceded 5
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