Premier League Stats: Why England Must Start Leighton Baines over Ashley Cole
For the majority of his 12-year career in an England jersey, Ashley Cole has remained virtually unchallenged at left-back.
As one of the few Englishmen to excel at major tournaments, especially during Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006, he has rightly been one of the first names on the team-sheet for the best part of a decade.
Many view him as one of his nation's few genuine world-class performers, which is certainly a justified tag given his long list of achievements.
At his peak, he was often the lone English representative in many World XIs; however, in England's current lineup, his place should no longer be assured.
Leighton Baines has began surpassing the Chelsea man over the past number of seasons, emphasised by his presence in the PFA Team of the Year as the Premier League's best left-back of last season—an accolade he's the hot favourite to receive again this year.
With Cole now 32, a change at international level is long overdue. Roy Hodgson needs to start permanently selecting the nation's premier performing left-back and relegate Cole to the sidelines to deputise.
To add more substance to this argument, here's a look at some of this season's relevant statistics.
First, here are some defensive numbers.
In the past, there's often been a misconception that Cole is significantly better than Baines in defensive terms, yet as these results reflect, that idea is very much flawed.
Both are pretty similar in most capacities with Baines edging his international colleague in slightly more sections.
Cole has played in a stronger defence this year that concedes slightly fewer goals as a unit. He is more prolific with his clearances and with his tackles and has equal joy with ground duels.
However, it's Baines who dominates elsewhere. He makes more interceptions, wins challenges more frequently and is the better tackler. His 82 percent success rate ranks him in the Premier League's top 10 (of players with 50 tackles this season), as the third-best defender.
One of the most crucial areas for a full-back is the "Dribbled Past" category, where the number of times a tricky opponent beats you is recorded. Baines comes out on top, past just 11 times this season to Cole's 15, but this hasn't tended to be such a close contest.
In the 2010/11 season, Baines was beaten 24 times to Cole's 38, while last season Baines was only dribbled past on an impressive 10 occasions to Cole's 29.
In total, with both players playing similar minutes, over the best part of three seasons Baines has been dribbled past 45 times, to Cole's 82. Perhaps not a result many would predict being so one-sided against Cole.
From these number's, there's little to say England would be weakened with Baines in defence. If anything his presence would strengthen it.
Next, here's a look at both players' contributions higher up the pitch.
These results accentuate the elite level of consistency Baines produces in attack, a return that surely warrants regular exposure to the international scene.
Other than a more accurate passing rate, slightly boosted by a lack of visits to the final third, Baines triumphs in every category and by a considerable margin.
Despite the fact most would consider Chelsea a more attacking team than Everton, Baines features in the final third almost twice as much as Cole, passing 20 times per game to 11, while also managing to lose possession less.
He has crossed 229 more times than Cole this season, delivering with 21 percent higher accuracy, and has also reeled off more shots and registered more goals.
In creative terms it's a non-contest. The 93 chances created by Baines rank him as the most creative source in Europe's top five leagues (via WhoScored?), a simply staggering return from left-back.
Going through the past few seasons, the difference between the two players is just as wide in these departments. While Cole's reputation as one of the world's leading attacking full-backs was fully justified in his prime, that baton has been passed to Baines and it's time for England to realise this.
Europe's most creative weapon can no longer be deemed short of international class.
The minimum conclusion from these statistics is surely for Baines's attacking ability to at least be included against the likes of San Marino, Moldova and other less potent sides, as well as in most home games when the emphasis is on England to attack.
Who should be England's No.1 left-back?
Considering the gulf in contribution in the final third, there is little value in playing Cole during these fixtures.
It's a closer call claiming a man of Cole's undeniable pedigree should be completely replaced; however, Baines' attacking production over the last few years has been elite, submerged by the fact it's been achieved at Everton as opposed to a top-four club.
England are wasting the chance to dramatically augment their offence by not playing Baines. The fact his' defensive numbers are also superior to Cole's—and have been for some time—leave little justification in him remaining as an international backup.
As England move towards World Cup 2014, Baines must be the man wearing the No. 3 shirt in Brazil.
Statistics via EPL Index
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