When Leighton Baines scored a free-kick against Newcastle, striking from 35 yards with terrific velocity, you can guarantee Roy Hodgson, the England manager, would have celebrated as passionately as the most ardent of Everton supporters. After all, Baines will hope his blossoming form can catch Hodgson’s eye in the build-up to England’s friendly with Brazil in February.
Slotting in at left-back in an improving Everton side, Baines has scored three goals and notched four assists in this season’s Premier League campaign. His performance against Newcastle, though, was a genuine highlight as he flickered with creativity and menace. Aside from his memorable goal, a dead-ball thumped with staggering precision, Baines showed his prowess in delivering clinical passes from any position on the pitch.
With 23 minutes gone, Baines looped in a devastating free-kick towards the far post yet Steven Naismith could not find a teammate with an otherwise inviting header. In the second half, after his fearsome bullet in the first period, Baines scooped a much closer free-kick – around 18 yards out – just wide of the right-hand post after placing optimum feel and care on the ball.
But earmarking Baines as a mere set-piece specialist would be a disservice to such a well rounded full-back. Everton ran rings around Newcastle with tightly woven one-twos between Baines and the likes of Nikica Jelavic, Steven Pienaar and Marouane Fellaini.
For a player in Baines’ position, it is not only important to deliver a ball with aplomb and intent; the player should also understand where a striker wants the ball to be placed. How much pace does the player need on the ball? How high do they like the pass to be? Baines, a thinking footballer, understands everything about distributing a ball. He barely ever misplaces a pass and that attests to his vision and work ethic throughout his career.
Should he replicate his thrilling form with England, he could inject some much anticipated creativity and impetus into a largely pedestrian side. Baines would have to dislodge Ashley Cole first, a defender boasting 99 international caps and a glowing reputation with every England manager for well over a decade. Cole’s Chelsea teammates have hardly defended with any great consistency this season and the more free-thinking, liberal England supporters would argue that it is perhaps time for a change.
His Chelsea colleague Ryan Bertrand, a confident dribbler rich in attacking skills, could also be an option while Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs is another bright spark in Hodgson’s emerging crop. Crucially, at 28-years-old and with only 10 international caps to his name, Baines may have hit prominence a few years too late.
If there is anything Baines lacks over his rivals, it is his level of skill while running with the ball. Although that is not a criticism of Baines’ undeniable ability, Gibbs and Bertrand both possess better control and nimble footwork.
Gibbs is adept at cutting inside, sauntering into the six-yard-box, and committing defenders into suicidal lunges in the penalty box. You only have to look at Arsenal’s searing pace on the counter-attack to understand how important their wing-play is. Boasting five assists this season, Gibbs in an integral part of what makes Arsenal one of the most dangerous attacking sides in the country.
Although it is said that quality English full-backs, the kind players who can assert themselves in major tournaments, are in short supply, Baines is certainly a welcome option. Possessing Steven Gerrard’s ability to spot a pass and David Beckham’s habit of whipping in wicked free-kicks, Baines deserves further recognition than his fleeting role in the England squad. It would be a travesty if one of Hodgson’s most gifted players never lived up to his potential at international level.