Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta vs. Everton's Leighton Baines: Who's Better?
If you don't believe me, ask ESPN.com's David Hirshey.
ESPN.com's preeminent soccer pundit (with apologies to Roger Bennett) and writing cohort Paul Kanarek put both men in their 2012-2013 Prem Best XI.
About Zabaleta, Hirshey and Kanarek noted that after biding time behind then-phenom Micah Richards at City, now "Zabaleta is a permanent fixture and even wears the armband when Kompany goes down."
As for Baines, Hirshey and Kanarek observed that Baines "is a worthy inheritor of the Best English Fullback mantle worn for so many years by Ashley Cole."
Choosing between these two will not be easy.
The true value of any commodity is inextricably tied to what it cost to acquire it, what it costs to keep it, and what it would fetch on the open market if its owner wanted to sell it.
Zabaleta came to City in 2008 from Espanyol for a transfer fee of approximately £6.5 million, according to ESPN.com's player profile. He is rumored to be in line for a two-year contract extension at City, per The Metro.
Maybe all of these numbers are conjecture, but it is remarkable how similar they are.
Still, it strains credulity to think that City could get £20 million for Zabaleta.
Age and Appearances
But if you have ever owned an automobile, or had a significant other for that matter, you know that it is never about the years and that it is always about the miles.
Zabaleta has seen significant action for Manchester City in the past three seasons, making 117 appearances in all competitions for the Sky Blues (97 starts.)
Baines, though, has been run like a taxi cab by Everton. In the past three seasons, Baines has made 130 appearances for Everton in all competitions. He started all but one of those matches.
Everton, understandably, does not have the depth that a squad like City has. Therefore, Baines has to play a lot to keep Everton competitive.
Given the choice between them on this basis only, then, the fresher legs of Zabaleta would be preferable.
Here, Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta has a decided edge on Everton's Leighton Baines.
According to whoscored.com's defensive statistics, Zabaleta averaged almost four tackles and two interceptions per match in Premier League play last season, to go along with nearly four clearances per match.
Baines averaged about two-and-a-half tackles and one-and-a-half interceptions per match in league play, with an average of two clearances.
Zabaleta also nearly doubled Baines in fouls committed.
So, considering only their play in their own halves, Zabaleta is the choice.
Comparing Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta to Everton's Leighton Baines based on offensive output is probably a bit unfair.
Zabaleta's side is packed with expensive, prodigious strikers. Baines' side is always offensively-challenged, so much so that Everton's best striker is actually a midfielder.
As such, Baines has little choice but to press upfield and try to help out in the opposing half of the pitch. Conversely, Zabaleta can stay at home more and pick his spots.
So the numbers here lie, but only to an extent. Could Zabaleta score more goals if he needed to? Maybe.
That is some easy math right there.
Value to His Side
Again, the economic disparity between Manchester City and Everton does Pablo Zabaleta no favors when compared to Leighton Baines on the measure of each man's value to his side.
Zabaleta was City's 2012-2013 Player of the Year according to MCFC.com, who cited "official supporters’ clubs and fans online" as the basis for the award.
His value to City will be underscored by recent word that Matija Nastasic is on the shelf for up to six weeks, according to The Guardian.
All that said, if Zabaleta retired tomorrow, City would do two things. They would name Micah Richards the new starting right back, and then they would spend millions of pounds on a backup for him.
If Leighton Baines retired tomorrow, Everton would be gutted.
Admittedly this is a soft consideration, and one that cannot be proven by statistics or any other objective measurable.
But here goes.
Everton's Leighton Baines is a very talented player who has the potential to become a leader at Goodison Park, per Kyle Bonn of nbcsports.com.
Arguably, Baines has not needed to lead at Everton to this point. Tim Howard carried a lot of that weight for a long time, though as the level of Howard's play ebbs it will be harder for him to maintain that primacy.
And right now, of course, Phil Jagielka is Everton's captain.
Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta, conversely, is a a player who has the potential to lead.
He has led for a long time and continues to do so now.
Zabaleta is often the first choice to take the arm band from Vincent Kompany on the rare occasions when Kompany leaves the pitch.
Moreover, Zabaleta has a history of leading teammates.
Per Duncan White's 2011 profile of Zabaleta for The Telegraph, Zabaleta at age 20 captained the Argentine contingent in the 2005 World Youth Championship tournament. Among his charges on that squad was current teammate Sergio Aguero.
Who Says No?
This slide requires your willing suspension of disbelief on two counts.
First, you need to imagine a situation where, as in American sports, two Premier League clubs could make a one-for-one trade of players.
Second, you need to put yourself in the positions of the brain trusts at Manchester City and Everton.
Conducting this exercise myself, I came to the following conclusions.
If Everton called City tomorrow and offered Leighton Baines for Pablo Zabaleta straight up, City would hesitate at the thought of losing Zabaleta, but, ultimately, they would make the deal.
If City called Everton tomorrow and offered Zabaleta for Baines, Everton would hang up the phone.
This comparison was a struggle insofar as my views of these two players were skewed by the sheer disparity of time I have spent watching Pablo Zabaleta and Leighton Baines playing football.
As a City supporter, I have seen plenty of Zabaleta and much less of Baines, though certainly Baines has been impressive on the occasions I have watched him.
Still, I anticipated a close race between these two players, and I expected that I would have Zabaleta come out on top.
But this is not a fanboy article.
Baines prevailed on more slides, on merit, and he is the choice.
If you think I got it wrong, feel free to set me straight in the comments.
It wouldn't be the first time.