Exposed Baines a casualty of risky England
Leighton Baines did not go to the last World Cup. He was omitted from the England squad -- in a decision that seemed strange then and appears utterly mind-boggling now -- in favour of Stephen Warnock. In fact, he was on his way to buy a trampoline when Fabio Capello phoned him to tell him the bad news.
But Baines has bounced back. Four years later, he has become England's first-choice left-back. Yet, while there were suspicions that homesickness was a reason he failed to make the cut in 2010, he was left home alone on his belated World Cup bow on Saturday. He was exposed and outnumbered time and again, as Italy's right-sided pair of Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian excelled and the Italians came away from Manaus with 2-1 win.
The Azzurri's winner came from a Candreva cross, headed in by Mario Balotelli. It was the sort of goal that reflects badly on a full-back, even if the root cause was found further forward: Danny Welbeck was not tracking back. And he had been shifted to the left because Wayne Rooney was doing a still worse job of protecting Baines.
It made for an uncomfortable evening. As English World Cup bows go, it was scarcely as traumatic as those endured by Robert Green, who let Clint Dempsey's shot squirm under him, or James Milner, hauled off after half an hour, in Rustenburg in 2010. Yet it was towards that end of the scale: Baines was a far cry from receiving the rapturous acclaim that greeted Raheem Sterling.
Instead, it made many nostalgic for his predecessor. English suggestions that Ashley Cole was the best left-back in the world for a decade were always exaggerated -- consider Roberto Carlos, Gianluca Zambrotta, Philipp Lahm and Patrice Evra, to name but four -- but he may well be his country's finest ever. The scale of Baines' achievement in displacing Cole should not be underestimated even if he received a helping hand from Jose Mourinho, who phased the veteran out at Chelsea over the past season.
Yet Cole's trilogy of April excellence -- with both legs of the Champions League semifinal against Atletico Madrid sandwiching the win at Anfield -- served as a reminder of his enduring defensive capabilities. As Roy Hodgson admitted when a second successive World Cup squad announcement involved the omission of one of the two prime candidates, the 33-year-old remained the second-best option.
"I've heard this 'What if Leighton Baines got injured, wouldn't Ashley Cole be the right answer?'" Hodgson said in May. "And the answer to that is yes, he would be, without a doubt. But Ashley Cole isn't really a cover player." So Baines is understudied by Luke Shaw, the 18-year-old Southampton prodigy of two caps, and few advocate a change.
The callow Shaw is more a budding Baines than the second Cole. He is part of the modern breed of attack-minded full-backs who occasionally risk leaving the back door unlocked when they go forward. In any case, while Cole was a great one-on-one defender, Baines' difficulties against Italy were different. He was often confronted by two men.
The raiding right-back Darmian was aided by the cleverness of Candreva, forever in pockets of space between both lateral and vertical lines. Had Hodgson selected a third central midfielder, perhaps he could have picked Candreva up. With only two, it wasn't an option; it was all part of the brilliance of Cesare Prandelli's game plan.
Fortunately for Baines in particular, and for England, it is hard to replicate. Uruguay certainly won't attempt to. Theirs is a more familiar 4-4-2, with converted striker Christian Stuani on the right. The bonus for Baines came in the shape of Maxi Pereira's ugly hack at Costa Rica's Joel Campbell; Uruguay's regular right-back is suspended, and Martin Caceres, the likely deputy, is a central defender who should spend less time overlapping. In other words, Baines should only have one man to combat on Thursday night.
Nor should the following game against Costa Rica present such problems. While there is the potential for Bryan Ruiz -- no specialist winger -- to take up the positions Candreva adopted, right-back Cristian Gamboa is no Darmian. In fact, he is almost a stranger to the final third.
Nevertheless, the left-sided issue for Hodgson remains. England's rigid 4-4-2 in Euro 2012 at least offered the full-backs protection. Their more ambitious 4-2-3-1 entails picking more progressive players on the wings. Raheem Sterling may be Baines' sidekick against Uruguay; Rooney, his supposed ally in Manaus, has long been applauded for his work rate but can't be relied upon to remain in position defensively. Hence the switch to the often more diligent Welbeck, the man Manchester United regularly pick for tasks that involve hard running and selfless sacrifice.
His temporary dereliction of duties in the Amazon apart, Welbeck remains the second-best defensive choice: better than Sterling, Rooney, Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana or, when fit, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The contenders' attacking ability is in inverse proportion to their use off the ball and the full-back's truest friend would probably be the least popular choice with the public: Milner, whose tactical nous and physical fitness made him a firm favourite with Capello, Roberto Mancini and, until this World Cup, Hodgson. Managers have come to value his predictability, but now England have embraced the exciting, the left flank has been used to shoehorn in another attacker.
It gives Baines a walk-on part in the nation-consuming, never-ending Rooney debate. It is also a sign the emphasis in English football has been shifted, from safety first to something more risky. Sadly, Baines has been collateral damage in a world where cover for a full-back seems a luxury.