5 Reasons Why Leighton Baines Should Be a Contender for EPL Player of the Year
With around six weeks to go in the 2012/13 Premier League season, the destination of the title appears certain with Manchester United 15 points clear at the top. Barring another miracle from Wigan (and they are doing their best again) the relegation issue seems pretty set too, with the current sides in the bottom three favourites to go down.
One of the accolades yet to be decided is the identity of the Premier League Player of the Year.
Traditionally it has gone to a key member of whoever wins the title or to someone who has had such an outstanding season their efforts simply cannot be ignored.
There are the obvious favourites: Robin van Persie, Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez, Michu, Juan Mata, Andy Carroll (joke).
It will be difficult for Baines to win (and he probably won't), but here's why his name should be firmly in the hat.
He Can Defend
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Although Everton have only kept a fairly modest five clean sheets so far this season, they have one of the best defensive records in the Premier League.
Everton's parsimony at the back has been built on powerful, if not particularly quick, centre-halves and two whippets for full-backs. Baines has been key to the success of that model.
He has made 55 tackles so far, second only to midfielder Leon Osman, and every third clearance made by Everton is carried out by Baines. (via WhoScored.com)
Considering the amount of times he has the ball at his feet, he is also dispossessed an impressively low number of times (26 according to WhoScored.com).
For a defender, that is absolutely vital.
He Can Attack
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For a full-back, being able to defend is mandatory.
You can be a perfectly reliable operator at the back and never set foot over the halfway line if you don't want to and still have a respectable career.
If you want to get noticed, though, you have to get forward and grab yourself a piece of the action.
This is perhaps the most striking part of Baines's game.
He is as good in an attacking capacity as he is at performing his day job. In fact he is better.
It is not difficult to see why. Baines started out life as a winger and has never lost that innate attraction to create chances and to try to make a difference somewhere other than in his own penalty area.
Whether it's his crossing, his passing or his delivery from set pieces, Baines has the accuracy of a surgeon.
No player delivers more crosses in the Premier League than Baines's 271 (via WhoScored.com) and when you take that number into account, his accuracy is outstanding.
Only Liverpool's Glen Johnson can boast making more passes than Baines from full-back, but no one can touch Baines for the number of key balls played—the most important aspect.
His 93 so far puts him ahead of David Silva, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla, Gareth Bale and Yaya Toure. All hugely influential midfielders. Baines is a left-back, remember.
Given all that, it is a surprise that Baines has only contributed four assists.
However the leader in that area, Manchester United's Patrice Evra, has only one more.
He Scores Goals
Let's be honest, goals from full-backs are a bonus.
As we know, it's defending first and attacking second. No one is really expecting full-backs to score.
Except if you're Leighton Baines, whose business card ought to say "Leighton Baines: I defend. I attack. I don't do tap-ins."
Baines has rapidly established himself as scorer of scrap-book goals. Real humdingers—usually from free kicks.
He has scored seven goals this season (OK, three of those were penalties—but you still have to put them away) with the majority of them coming via glorious thumps from distance.
He has done it against West Brom and in the game at St.James' Park (above). What's more he has been doing this sort of thing for a while now.
Whether for Wigan, Everton or in an England shirt Baines has always had an eye for the spectacular.
He is pretty much the complete package.
He Has Made Full-Backs Fashionable
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Of all the positions on the field, being a full-back is the hardest one to exude much of a personality (ask Gary Neville).
It's much easier for strikers, midfielders, wingers and central defenders to play with a discernible character.
Even goalkeepers can. Everyone knows they're all bonkers.
For full-backs, it's different. They're seen in a similar way to pawns on a chess board: expendable, not terribly interesting, a bit dull.
In the kaleidoscope of the Premier League, they are the boys in beige.
After all when was the last time you heard a kid say "I want to be a full-back when I grow up"?
There have been some memorable mavericks who have bucked that perception.
Stuart Pearce revelled in the nickname "Psycho," and another bastion of the school of hard shots and ever harder tackles, Julian Dicks, once memorably ran out for West Ham with a completely shaved head days after the FA suggested his chances of getting picked for England would be enhanced if he grew it a bit.
Then there is the pioneer of pyrotechnics, Roberto Carlos. He was really the first to show the modern generation that the position could carry as much glamour as a Formula One driver.
The current Liverpool right-back, Glen Johnson, did his bit to inject some colour into the present-day profile, but unless Leighton Baines wants to swipe an entire bathroom suite from his nearest DIY store that's probably a path that's best not followed.
Along with his skills, Baines has the look, the hair and, just as importantly, the likability factor (sorry, Ashley Cole) to make being a full-back fashionable.
He Doesn't Play for Manchester United...yet
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As mentioned at the start of this piece, the winner of this season's Player of the Year will almost certainly be someone who plays for bigger club than Everton with a much higher profile than Everton, which in turn generates a much greater breadth of coverage than Everton.
It's kind of the way of it.
The last person to win the award who did not play for the champions that particular season or one of the big clubs (often the same team) was Kevin Phillips back in 1999/2000 when he was scoring goals all over the place for Sunderland.
Baines, at 29, does not have too many more shots at this sort of accolade, and his role in helping Everton over-achieve yet again is perhaps worthy of rather more than it seems.
Would Baines be as effective if he played for Manchester United, City or Chelsea? Would he even play as much?
Most of the time players from those clubs have done something to deserve the award but, occasionally, wouldn't it be refreshing to recognise the contribution of a player outside this elite group and who is not a striker or a forward?
Admittedly it's an idea straight out of left-field—which is sort of appropriate.