ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's StatsZone app – now FREE – to identify who should replace the Chelsea man as England's No.3...
Something significant will happen in England’s left-back zone this week.
There are two possibilities: either Ashley Cole will recover from his ankle injury to play against both Moldova and Ukraine, making him only the sixth English player in history to win 100 caps. Alternatively, Cole will miss one or other fixture, and we will learn who Roy Hodgson considers his natural back-up.
Considering the former Arsenal player has been an automatic starter for over a decade, the identity of his deputy – and probable successor – is both intriguing and important.
Hodgson has named two other left-backs in his squad, meaning it should be a straight choice between Cole’s Chelsea clubmate Ryan Bertrand and Leighton Baines, who earned a place in last season’s PFA Team of the Year thanks to his performances for Everton.
The pair represent two vastly different options. Bertrand is more similar stylistically to Cole, is used to replacing him at club level, and would continue the Chelsea connection with John Terry and Gary Cahill at the back. Baines is a different type of player – more focused upon good distribution with his trusted left foot, he’s created more chances than any other Premier League player so far this season.
Bertrand has actually played on the left of midfield for Chelsea so far this season – and it’s not impossible that Hodgson, a coach highly focused upon discipline from his wide midfielders, could use him there. The last game he played for Chelsea as a left-back was last season at home to Blackburn, with his passes received and played illustrated below.
Bertrand generally takes up a position in the opposition half, stretching the play and providing width, allowing Chelsea’s left-sided midfielder to move into more central positions. He’s used to receiving short passes in a side which plays possession football – it’s a slightly different situation with England, where Hodgson doesn’t care about possession statistics, and prefers his side to attack directly.
Taking Baines’ performance in the equivalent fixture as a comparison, there’s a big difference. Playing in a less attacking side, Baines picks up the ball closer to the halfway line. He offers an overlapping threat, but it’s much more sporadic.
The major difference is in terms of distribution. Bertrand’s job at Chelsea is to keep the ball moving quickly – he rarely plays long passes or crosses, and therefore ends up with an impressive pass completion rate.
Baines is much more direct. Playing in a side featuring Marouane Fellaini and Nikica Jelavic, one of the main features of Baines’ game is his ability to hit long, accurate balls towards a striker to flick on, or bring down to encourage midfield runners forward. There are many more wayward passes, and more balls hit into central positions.
So, if Cole is unfit, who does Hodgson choose? Ultimately, it might depend on England’s attacking players. Hodgson prefers to play with a big man up front and get the ball to him quickly, but Andy Carroll’s absence will significantly change England’s approach play.
If Carroll was in the side, Baines’ long, drifted forward passes would be perfect. Instead, Danny Welbeck or Jermain Defoe will play upfront, meaning Bertrand’s neater passes would be likely to enable England’s play to flow forward more smoothly.
In the long-term, there will probably be another contender: Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs, not selected for this squad. Gibbs is similar to Bertrand, but generally receives the ball in deeper positions, and rarely attempts crosses – he passes, rather than centres the ball, when he reaches the final third.
Yet ultimately the debate may prove irrelevant – both this week, and over the next couple of years. Cole has never been England’s most popular player, but if he continues to play to the same level for the national side over the next two or three years, he could well become England’s most capped footballer of all time.
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