Since the days of Chris Waddle, the left midfield slot has been a constant thorn in the England national team’s side, the left hand side to be precise.
For the last twenty years, the pub-talkers have constantly bemoaned Ryan Giggs’s decision to play for Wales, and in the Manchester United veteran’s voluntary absence from the Three Lions fold, the likes of Lee Bowyer, Stewart Downing, Adam Johnson, Trevor Sinclair and Seth Johnson to name a few have all been proclaimed as the answer to England’s left midfield crisis, but it’s safe to say that none of them produced the goods on the international stage.
Granted, there was a short period where Joe Cole put in some stellar performances on the left flank for the Three Lions, netting vital goals at major tournaments, but since the former England winger’s sudden demise at Liverpool, the Three Lions’ left midfield woes have quickly re-emerged.
Now, Roy Hodgson has the lacklustre Ashley Young, the indefinable Danny Welbeck and the inexperienced Andros Townsend to choose from to don the left hand side. Slim pickings indeed.
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But could there be an unorthodox answer to England’s generation-spanning left wing crisis staring us in the face all along? Is there finally a man we can be proud to call the Three Lion’s left winger, turning up after all these years to save Roy Hodgson’s men from the international abyss they currently find themselves in?
The man in question is Everton’s Leighton Baines. An attacking midfielder, no, a conventional winger with pace and pizazz, not at all. But I did say the answer would be unorthodox.
The Toffees talisman may not be the epitome of the modern winger; the chances of him successfully dribbling past his opposing defender on a regular basis are minimal, and he’s hardly what you’d describe as a speed demon.
But regardless, he was last season’s most creative player in the Premier League and one of the most creative in Europe, conjuring up 116 chances to score in total for open play and set pieces combined, 12 more than any other player in the English top flight, which not only makes him the most creative individual entity in the division, but also the most creative player in the entire England set-up, which is all the more impressive considering he’s been doing it from left-back.
Similarly, pushing Baines up into midfield is hardly an absurd suggestion. He’s the most ambitious and forward thinking left full-back the Premier League has to offer, and if we were still living in the glory days of 4-4-2 he’d undoubtedly be deployed as a wide midfielder rather than defender, possessing more technical ability than defensive nous, and greater vision on the ball than physical prowess.
Watch the 28 year-old in any particular fixture and his capability to play in left midfield is already obvious; he gets closer to the byline on a more frequent basis than Everton’s Steven Pienaar, and his cultured left boot produces incredibly consistent and dangerous crosses into the box that vastly outweigh the quality of delivery provided by the likes of Stewart Downing, Ashley Young or Matt Jarvis, or for that matter any natural winger on either flank in the English top flight.
Furthermore, utilising Baines as a midfielder would solve another selection headache for Roy Hodgson that is currently dividing the opinion of the English public.
No doubt, Ashley Cole isn’t the free-roaming full-back he used to be, and many have bemoaned at the veteran’s approach of rarely venturing into the opposing half for club or country. But amid these times of international hardship for the Three Lions, especially in defence where current centre-back partnership Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka are still finding their feet on the international stage, the Chelsea defender’s experience, having won three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups, a Champions League title and a Europa League title, in addition to racking up 105 caps for his country, is undoubtedly a necessity, regardless of the fact Leighton Baines has been outperforming his England colleague for some time.
And it’s not as if employing a defender in midfield would take away from England’s creativity. A lack of flair going forward has become the Three Lions’ biggest issue over the last decade, and as a result, the impetus of Roy Hodgson’s tenure has been to eke out victories and draws with defensively assured displays. Baines can only add to that approach by providing added cover and defensive security on the left flank, whilst as previously stated he’s also our most efficient left-sided player going forward.
Additionally, if all else fails, should Roy Hodgson attempt my suggested Leighton Baines midfield experiment to no avail, the Everton star still has his unrivalled quality from dead ball situations to fall back on. Granted, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are both very good at working the goalkeeper from free kick situations, but Baines is a whole different level.
The majority of his five goals and five assists last season were from dead ball opportunities, and last weekend’s showing against West Ham was a true testament of Baines’ sublime quality, netting twice from short-range free kicks at incredibly similar positions, first putting the ball past Jussi Jaaskelainen’s right hand side into the back of the net, and then curling his second successful attempt into the opposing corner of the goal in a lofted and incredibly aesthetic fashion. If England have one advantage remaining on the international scene it’s aerial prowess from set pieces and Baines can only contribute positively to the regularity of the Three Lions finding the net indirectly from free kicks.
Overall, by my estimations at least, that makes Leighton Baines the most creative English player currently playing today, outshining the Three Lions’ current left wingers by some way. He’s also England’s most talented and technically gifted left footer and the second most defensively assured left-footer after Ashley Cole, and unless a free-kick shoot out between Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and the Everton defender were to prove me wrong, he’s also our most equipped and efficient dead ball specialist.
The Toffees man’s regular dangerous deliveries in open play and from set pieces only add to England’s few remaining strengths, and unlike the vast majority of the current Three Lions cast, Baines has been at the pinnacle of his footballing powers for the last two seasons, playing with intensity, confidence and aggression throughout.
Don’t let the defender tag fool you, there hasn’t been a better candidate for the left-hand side of England’s midfield in the last twenty years.
Should Leighton Baines be England’s new left midfielder?
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