Leighton Baines has started every Everton league game this season. From those 25 matches he has claimed five man of the match awards, scored five goals and made three assists – only Patrice Evra of Manchester United has assisted more goals from defence in England.
David Moyes’ side plays a simple type of football – get the ball forward in a relatively direct manner, shuffle the ball out wide when in the final third and get crosses into the box for the likes of Nikica Jelavic, Victor Anichebe and Marouane Fellaini.
Baines is perhaps the most important wide player in the Everton side. A staggering 44% of attacks come down their left and his partnership with Steven Pienaar in front of him is talked of as being one of the best in the league.
Last Saturday, Everton hosted Aston Villa, an inexperienced side extremely vulnerable to defending crosses and set pieces, and so it seemed perfect for Baines to impress once again.
All he had to do was be brave in his positioning, receive the ball out wide and pick out a team mate with a cross.
During the Villa game Baines’ positioning was so advanced that he often looked like more of a left winger than a left back.
Pienaar made his usual darting runs inside, dragging Villa right back Matthew Lowton inside with him, opening up the space for the Englishman to venture into.
Another advantage Baines had at the weekend was his marker – Andreas Weimann. The Austrian prefers playing centrally but was on the right of a midfield four for Villa and seemed reluctant to track Baines’ runs into the final third of the pitch.
Baines’ bravery in attack is also the result of Everton’s usual choice of central midfielders; Phil Neville, Darron Gibson and Leon Osman. On Saturday the latter two played with Osman given a more disciplined role in comparison to the freedom he gets when playing out wide or in the hole.
This means that Baines is always free to push forward, knowing he has two central midfielders behind him that can support the defence at quick turnovers of play.
However, as much as Baines poses a very real threat in attack, his positioning can jeopardise his side’s defensive balance.
When Villa did look to counter quickly, Gibson, as the left-sided central midfielder, was expected to sweep up that side of the pitch, and Sylvain Distin the left-sided centre back, should have been in a position to move over, knowing that Christian Benteke would still be up against both Johnny Heitinga and Phil Jagielka.
However, all three of Villa’s goals came down the Everton left flank. The first came when Benteke ran in between both centre backs into the channel inside of Baines, before finishing emphatically.
He was drawn out by Weimann who then released the run of Lowton past his marker Pienaar – Lowton then delivered a superbly whipped delivery for Benteke to get his second goal of the game.
Everton next play Manchester United at Old Trafford this Sunday, and Moyes would do well to remember that Baines can be his best attacking threat, but also his biggest defensive weakness.
(photo #1 credit: Pikesville via Flickr)