Third Choice or Number Three?

Three number threes, but who's number one?

Three number threes, but who's number one?

In all the talk of relegation last weekend, and then later in the week, lost amongst all the anticipation and reaction to the Champions League final, it was easy to miss the fact that Fabio Capello announced his England squad for the qualifiers with Kazakhstan and Andorra. However, I did see the squad and despite focusing on the above mentioned issues, made myself a mental note to come back and address an issue I have with it, which I shall now do.

Mr. Capello has, in general, been a breath of fresh air for England, and his squad and team selections have, on the whole, been good and most importantly a fair reflection of form. However, on occasion, he does seem to fall into the age-old trap of picking those players of bigger reputation ahead of those in the best form, especially in defence. My point today can be adequately summed up as follows: “why the hell isn’t Leighton Baines in the England squad?!”

Naturally, those of you who are regular readers (or those who have eyes) will have noticed that I am indeed an Evertonian and may put this down to bias on my part. Others will point to the fact that cursed as we are with a lack of left-sided midfielders, England are in fact blessed with left-backs, namely in the shape of Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge who are both in the squad. However, as ever i feel I’ve left bias out of these arguments and I truly believe that if Capello were to select a starting 11 based on form as he suggested was his method, Baines would be England’s current left-back.

Naturally, the two biggest obstacles for Baines are the aforementioned Cole and Bridge. And don’t get me wrong, those are two players I rate very highly. While I dislike Cole as a person, based on his behaviour at certain points in his career, I do believe that he is one of, if not the, finest left backs in the world when he’s at his best. Bridge too, is a great talent, though you can’t help but feel that he spent too long on the bench at Chelsea behind Cole, and could have been better if he was playing regularly all that time instead.

But I just feel that if Capello’s selection policy genuinely is form based, then there is no way to justify leaving Baines out. His form has been phenomenal all season, and he has played a huge part in Everton’s storming season. However, more to the point, Cole and Bridge have not been playing to the best of their ability of late.

Cole has missed a bit of Chelsea’s season with various injuries, and has struggled really to maintain any momentum. He can still get forward with the best of them and is often a threat in the opposition box, but anyone who has seen him this season will concede that he hasn’t been playing as well as we know he can. And when you consider that in England’s last couple of games Cole has had a few poor performances and received a fair bit of stick from the crowd, you have to acknowledge that this season is one Cole probably won’t remember as fondly as others.

And Bridge too, will be a bit disappointed with his season. After finally leaving Chelsea after a frustrating time there (let’s face it, they bought Cole not long after taking Bridge from Southampton, he must have been gutted) he must have been looking to really establishing himself as a top player in the Premier League with a Manchester City side of which much was expected. However, like City’s season as a whole, Bridge hasn’t really set the league alight this season.

Yes he has, at times been his usual consistent self, but from such a talented player you’d look for a little more. Much of the season saw Stephen Ireland pretty much carry Man City in terms of creativity, and you’d want Bridge to be getting forward and providing options for the Irishman, but all too often Bridge, like City, didn’t play to his best. Hopefully with a full summer of preparation ahead and some rethinking from City, he will rediscover his top form next season though.

I’ll admit here and now that if Cole and Bridge were in top form, then Baines would face a challenge for a place in the England squad. I think Baines, with age on his side, is an immense player and he’d be in my squad, but I’ll accept that there could be some bias creeping in there. What is a fact though, is that Baines has a lot of talent, and he is in the form of his life, and so for me, he has to be in the England squad.

Though life at Everton started slowly for him, as he struggled to hold down a place with the three powers that are Lescott, Yobo and Jagielka always demanding a starting role, Baines has really got going this season. Injury to Yobo saw Lescott in his preferred central position and Baines given a run in the side and he really has grasped it with both hands. His potential was clear for all to see at Wigan and this season for Everton, he has absolutely flourished.

The most impressive aspect about him for me is that he is very much a complete wing back. Ashley Cole is devastating going forward, but has always been seen as a bit weak defensively. The same cannot be said for Baines though. He can be just as deadly going forward, and this season has combined superbly with Steven Pienaar on many occasions to gain assists for a lot of goals. But his incredible work-rate and stamina mean that he is never caught out of position despite this, and when he’s back there, that boy sure can defend.

I will admit that on first signing him I wondered whether he was sound enough defensively, because although i’m a huge fan of attacking wing-backs I always worry that it can leave a defence over exposed. However, Baines is phenomenal as a defender. Very few players have gotten the better of him this season, he is a very difficult player to get past, just ask Cristiano Ronaldo. On both occasions when Everton played United, Baines kept Ronaldo very quiet, with United forced to go through the middle more so, and indeed Fletcher scored in the 1-1 draw early in the season. Ronaldo did score against us, but only from the spot, and that is testament to Baines’ performances.

Furthermore, he has an incredibly good awareness on the pitch, he reads the game very well and is frequently in just the right place at the right time, be it for a block on the line or for a last ditch recovery tackle, Baines has made numerous of both this season and got us out of a few tight spots. If he has one weakness it would be his height I suppose, he is not a dominant presence in the air, but Ronaldo aside, most wingers aren’t going to be a target-man for their side, and with the likes of Terry and Ferdinand alongside him in the hypothetical England XI, that wouldn’t be a problem.

So overall, I have to say I’m very disappointed that Baines hasn’t been included in the England squad for the upcoming qualifiers. He was in the squad for the last round of friendlies alongside Lescott and Jagielka, and if anything his form has only improved since that time. I will accept that when Cole and Bridge are at their best then it becomes a very difficult decision (but a lovely problem for any manager to have), but I think I’m fair in suggesting that neither of Baines’ direct competitors are at their best.

And yet it is the more well known pair who find themselves included in the squad, and I find myself again questioning Capello’s insistence on a form based selection policy. I have seen more of Baines than the others this season I’ll admit, but given that Baines hasn’t put a foot wrong once, there’s no way they could be in better form than he is right now. With the FA Cup Final pitting Chelsea against Everton and thus Cole against Baines, Capello (who’s bound to have one of the adundance of tickets that the FA should have given to the competing clubs – but I’ve ranted about that before) will perhaps see that he has made a mistake in leaving out the younger, less illustrious player in favour of Ashley Cole.

Ultimately though, it is a nice position to be in, having three top class left-backs to choose from (and another on the way in Keiran Gibbs) but I think that Leighton Baines can be feeling very hard done by to still find himself considered third choice when I think that he should be, based on current form, England’s number three. I’m interested to hear your opinions on this though, so do have a vote in the poll below.

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