In any other generation Leighton Baines would probably have gone down as one of the finest England left-backs of all time. The problem for the Everton man is that he happens to be playing at the same time as the man who could lay claim to being England’s greatest ever full-back.
Say what you like about Ashley Cole’s off the field antics but no-one could deny his commitment and consistency on the pitch. The Chelsea man is arguably the best left-back in the world and when he retires he will be considered up there with the best. Three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups, one League Cup, one Champions League and one Europa League make for a very full trophy cabinet, especially when compared to his England understudy.
Trophies don’t define Baines though: he has a reputation as one of the most potent attacking threats in the Premier League. Whether it is through free-kicks, corners or crosses Baines is always creating chances for his team-mates and he has tried to seize his opportunity with England whenever he can.
Recently though there has been a small clamour for the pair to be tried together, perhaps an experiment that could take place after qualification for the World Cup is secured.
It is surely not that far-fetched an idea – both are world-class players – and therefore it makes logical sense that they should be accommodated into the same line-up. After all, England managers have tried for over a decade to fit Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard into the same team with usually negative results. So why not try Baines and Cole together?
The 3-5-2 approach
This would be quite a modern attempt at including both players and it would also appear quite feasible at first glances. Cole is a terrific defender and although he is strong going forward his positional sense would mean he could work very well at centre-back.
Additionally, he would be more than capable of stepping over to help Baines out should his team-mate be caught in possession. Although both players love to get forward Baines does it that little bit more which explains why he is always selected as the more advanced player in these proposals.
Both benefit hugely at club level from having a player ahead of them that loves to cut inside, creating space for them to overlap and get crosses in from the by-line. Of course what Baines does so well also is the “underlapping run” when he runs round the inside of his colleague rather than the outside, allowing his team-mate to move outside or slip Baines in.
Playing at wing-back could be a great stimulus for Baines as it would give him far more creative freedom and allow him to venture forward with increasing regularity. The great thing about having two such talented players in any formation is that they will instinctively know when to switch with the other.
The 4-4-2 approach
In England’s last game against Montenegro Roy Hodgson dropped his 4-3-3 formation in favour of a 4-4-2 with Andros Townsend and Danny Welbeck flanking Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge. Baines filled in for Cole at left-back but he could shift further forward and take Welbeck’s place when Cole returns to full fitness. Welbeck has already shown an admirable willingness to track back in his career so far but his age and attacking mentality means he is still caught out of position.
Remember, he is primarily a forward and isn’t used to the defensive disciplines that come with playing on the wing. This sort of deficiency would never have been exposed against Montenegro but he will get an examination on Tuesday evening against Poland.
Apart from their talismanic forward Robert Lewandowski Poland’s main threat will come down their right flank in the shape of captain Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek. The Borussia Dortmund pair are a formidable threat going forward and it will be interesting to see how they try and push Welbeck back on Tuesday.
Playing Baines ahead of Cole then would make sense in bigger games because of his defensive strength. Obviously England don’t want to go too defensive but if you make even one defensive mistake against a team like Germany or Spain it could be game over.
Welbeck offers a lot to the side but at times it does seem like Hodgson is playing him there for want of a better option. He isn’t a world class left winger and he isn’t as good as Sturridge or Rooney.
Baines is a better crosser and although he wouldn’t cut inside as much that might not necessarily be a bad thing. A lot of wingers cut inside now and having one that happily hugs the touchline could allow for far more crosses.
The 4-3-3 approach
This is probably the most adventurous of all the proposals and the least likely to happen. If England reverted to a 4-3-3 then Baines could play as an out-and-out winger, with Cole again at left-back.
This is seemingly a more attacking version of the previous option and as such it doesn’t seem likely. As good as Baines is going forward he is better surging at defenders rather than receiving the ball to feet and then exploding away from them, something Welbeck is good at.
The other problem with this approach is that Baines would be expected to cut inside more. He isn’t particularly bad at it but he is clearly more comfortable on his left foot.
The advantage of playing Baines is that he would drift further outside which would drag the full-back out wide as well. This would create space for one of the central midfielders to exploit and someone like Frank Lampard, with his tendency for late runs into the box, could find these extremely beneficial.
The 3-5-2 is something that really could be used to great effect and should England secure World Cup qualification against Poland then there is no reason Hodgson could not experiment in a winter friendly or even at the start of 2014. Baines and Cole both possess attributes to suggest they could play well at wing-back and centre-back respectively. It is hard to ignore Baines given the form he is in, but then Cole’s 105 caps mean he will probably get the nod next summer.
As mentioned earlier they are both brilliant players and therefore Hodgson needs to at least experiment with ways to include them both. This will probably be Cole’s final major international tournament and Baines will obviously deputise following that.
The problem is that we could be faced with this dilemma in a few years’ time, perhaps in 2016 or 2018. Baines could find himself under threat from Southampton’s Luke Shaw, who is progressing at an incredible rate for one so young. He has already been tipped as one for the future for England, and this whole debate could be revisited.
Therefore it makes sense to experiment now so we at least have some idea of if it would work or not. Brendan Rodgers has experimented with a 3-5-2 at Liverpool this season and so far it seems to have worked well – and of course Juventus’ use of the formation is well-known.
It is a high risk strategy, but if you have the players to pull it off it can be lethal, having extra players in both attack and defence. England definitely have players who could make it work given the practice, so it makes sense to try it before next summer.