Chelsea take on Everton this weekend in a match that Roy Hodgson would likely have pencilled in months ago as the perfect chance to take a look at his two leading contenders for the England left-back berth. Sadly for Hodgson, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho’s consistent preference for Cesar Azpilicueta at left-back ahead of Cole means that he is likely to be robbed of the chance of assessing his left-back options.
Given Cole’s lack of game time, will he have to get used to watching on from the bench while Baines lines up in the big matches? Hodgson has a big decision to make at left-back ahead of the World Cup, with some suggesting that Cole may not even make the plane.
Squawka decided to give the England boss a helping hand, taking a look at the stats behind his left-back dilemma.
Is Baines Shaky Defensively?
While Baines’ attacking qualities are clear for all to see, the main critique that he faces at international level is defensive weakness. The role of a left-back should, first and foremost, be a defensive one, particularly at international level.
The importance of the defensive aspect of the duo’s respective games is likely to be amplified at the World Cup, with England expected to play a counter-attacking style that may need the defence to withstand sustained pressure.
Over the years, Cole has proven to be a reliable pair of hands for club and country. However, this season the defensive statistics favour Baines. For every 90 minutes spent on the pitch, the Everton man has made 2.43 tackles, averaged more clearances and won more aerial duels.
At first glance, this may not seem that surprising, given that Baines plays for a side lower in the table than Chelsea, and that you would expect to be more active defensively.
However, Chelsea have averaged more tackles, aerial duels and clearances won per 90 minutes played than Everton this season, meaning that Baines’ higher defensive activity cannot be put down to the pair’s respective teams, as Baines has made more clearances, headers and tackles than Cole, for a team that on average make fewer.
As well as volume, Baines also outdoes Cole on success rates based on this season. The former Wigan man has won 42 percent of the headed duels that he has contested this season, compared to Cole’s 27 percent, whilst he has a 62 percent tackle success rate, marginally more than Cole’s 57 percent.
Surprisingly, for a man of his experience, Cole has committed the same number of fouls as Baines (11), despite playing six fewer games.
One stat that does go in Cole's favour is the pair’s interception rates. Defensive positioning is one of the limitations of a stats comparison, but interception rates can give some judge of positioning, and Cole edges out Baines by 1.3 per 90 minutes played to one per 90 minutes.
Defensively, Baines edges the contest this season, although some context should flesh out the stats. Cole has clearly not benefitted from the stop-start nature of his season to date and has at times looked rusty. Last season he managed a far higher percentage of aerial duels and clearances, as well as committing fouls half as frequently he has this term.
The statistics don’t show Cole to be a bad option at the back, but do put up a good case against the argument that Baines lacks defensively.
However, it is at the other end of the pitch that Baines truly excels. The Everton man has created 24 chances this season, over double the number that Cole has (10.) Baines has created a chance every 70 minutes played for Everton this season, whilst Cole has created one every 110.
The action areas map from Baines’ last game, the 1-0 defeat to Tottenham, shows just how attack-minded he is. One third of his touches during that game came in the area of the pitch by the left-hand byline, more than he managed in any other single area during the game.
Baines’ left foot has been a key weapon for Everton this season. He has frequently peppered opposition boxes with crosses, managing 12 in a single game against Norwich City on the opening day of the season. Six of those came from corners, with his set-piece delivery proving a key asset.
The 29-year-old has scored three goals this season, all from set pieces, and has eight league goals since the start of last season. In the same period, Cole scored just one goal, although he did manage four assists—just one short of the five that Baines managed during that period.
Should Cole Even Be On The Plane?
With Baines in possession of more game time and stronger performances this season than Cole, there is a line of argument that Cole may not even make the plane, let alone be first choice. He is facing competition from the likes of Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs and Southampton’s Luke Shaw for his left-back space, with both of the young pretenders impressing for their respective sides this season.
Defensively, both Shaw and Gibbs have proven solid for their respective sides this season. Gibbs has averaged higher than any of his rivals in interceptions and clearances and fares well in both of the other categories selected on the comparison matrix above.
The Arsenal defender has struggled with injury this season, but if he can shake off the niggles that have been troubling him and stay injury-free for the conclusion of the season, then he will prove to be difficult for Hodgson to leave out.
However, Gibbs has proven to be surprisingly lacking in creative output this season. He has averaged just shy of one chance created every two blocks of 90 minutes played this season, although part of this can be attributed to Arsenal’s slow build-up play and disdain for taking shots at goal.
One area that Cole’s experience does appear to shine through is in his pass completion rate. Similar to Baines, it is far higher than both Gibbs and Shaw. If Cole is to make it to the World Cup, then it will be on the back of past glories and experience rather than his form this season.
Not necessarily a bad thing, given the lack of time to ease Gibbs or Shaw into the demands of international football, Cole is likely to still make the plane in spite of Gibbs’ impressive displays this season. However his first-choice slot is under considerable threat from Baines and, as he will be on Saturday, expect Cole to be watching Baines from the bench when the World Cup kicks off.