For all the resentment Everton fans have shown towards Sam Allardyce, it’s often forgotten that he’s working with a desperately imbalanced squad and players he inherited from a manager with completely different ideals in Ronald Koeman. Cuco Martina’s regular outings at left-back this season epitomise how the former England boss has been forced to settle for square pegs in round holes and sellotaping ill-fitting jigsaw pieces together for much of his short time at Goodison Park.
After losing their last two outings to Burnley and Watford, the Toffees returned to winning ways against Brighton on Saturday and the man who replaced Martina at left-back – the previously injured Leighton Baines – was a pivotal influence on the result, providing the quality, width and vital balance the right-footed Curacao international has often failed to this season.
Indeed, it was the 30-cap England international who overlapped Yannick Bolasie at the perfect time for the first goal, creating the space for the winger to drift inside and launch a cross that Gaitan Bong then put beyond his own goalkeeper. Baines had a far more direct impact on the second goal – providing the assist for Cenk Tosun’s rifled finish that put the result beyond doubt – and tellingly of how influential he was on Saturday, he had the second-most touches of the ball of any player on the pitch.
Speaking of perfect timing, Baines’ return couldn’t have come at a better time for Allardyce. The 33-year-old not only improves Everton defensively but also going forward as well, his left-footed deliveries from out wide being a defining feature of the Toffees’ attacking play for many seasons now.
And for all the ill-feeling towards Allardyce currently, a positive end to the season – which is far more likely with Baines in the team – could extinguish much of that ahead of a transfer window in which the Everton boss will have the chance to truly imprint his ideas onto the team. Accordingly, Baines’ return to fitness could prove to be something of a turning point for the Toffees’ under-fire manager in the months to come.
With many of the alternatives struggling for both game-time and form this season, is Baines actually still England’s best option at left-back at the age of 33? Let us know by voting below…