Ashley Cole or Leighton Baines?

With Cole looking vulnerable and Baines excelling, the England manager has described the left-back position as one of the more difficult selections of his professional life.

By his own admission, even Roy Hodgson will admit he is not too sure what to do. The last time the subject cropped up, breaking bread in a downstairs suite at the Soho Hotel the day after England had assured themselves of a place at the World Cup, there was even a mention of the Peter Shilton-Ray Clemence option. Ashley Cole or Leighton Baines? “Maybe I will be able to rotate them,” Hodgson said.

The dynamic has changed since then. Cole has lost his place at Chelsea, the unlikely fall-guy for some public criticism of the team from José Mourinho, while Baines has quietly been going about the business of trying to establish himself as the eminent English left-back. Even the most ardent admirer of Cole would probably have to acknowledge that, a month from his 33rd birthday, he has never looked more vulnerable since establishing the position as his own, 12 years ago.

Hodgson has described it as one of the more difficult selections of his professional life. The England manager has always used Cole, fitness permitting, on the occasions that really matter, but his tone had changed after the Montenegro and Poland games. Baines had excelled and Hodgson, for the first time, said there was no longer a clearly defined first-choice player for the position.

He mentioned, again, the possibility of alternating the two players, à la Shilton and Clemence, but a manager usually likes to be decisive and Cole is in new territory when Chelsea are currently using a right-back, César Azpilicueta, to fill his usual slot. The momentum, more than ever, is with Baines.

It has been coming. Since the start of last season, a look through Opta’s figures will confirm Baines has the more accomplished statistics in just about every department. His success rate in tackles in the Premier League this season is 82.4% compared to Cole’s 72.7, and 79.3 to 73.4 the previous year. Baines has won 70.7% of what are classified as “ground duels”, as opposed to 55.2 for Cole, whereas last season it was much tighter, 61% to 58.2.

Cole has the better figures when it comes to the accuracy of passing and crossing but Baines has overtaken him this season when it comes to aerial duels. Then consider Baines’s extra attacking input. The figures are skewed a little by the fact he has played 49 league games over the two seasons, compared to Cole’s 40, but the disparity is still considerable. Baines has put over 289 crosses and created 130 scoring chances. Cole’s figures are 59 and 25. Baines has a better ratio of goals, shots and assists and a 57.7% success rate taking on opponents while running. Cole is some way behind, on 18.2%.

Sometimes, though, too much credence is given to these numbers. How about the statistic that tells us Cole has 105 caps’ worth of experience incorporating three World Cups and two European Championships? Or perhaps we could tot up the number of trophies he has won compared to his rival. Champions League games? That would be 103 since 2000, against zero for Baines. As for the number of occasions Cole has played head-to-head against Cristiano Ronaldo and come out on top – well, which defender can say he has handled him any better? That performance against Portugal in Euro 2004 is one of the outstanding individual displays by any England defender, too often forgotten because of everything else that happened in the same match.

Cole’s temporary removal from the team at Stamford Bridge has not been preceded by a longer malaise and he was the first player Hodgson identified for acclaim after the goalless draw in Ukraine in September. There is also the fact, as Joe Hart can testify, that Hodgson likes to be loyal to his players, especially when he thinks they are loyal towards him. Even Phil Jagielka, Baines’s team-mate at Everton and one of his closest friends, has said it would be tough on Cole to lose his place, on the basis he has rarely put a foot wrong for England.

Yet Cole’s position is undoubtedly weakened by the fact he has been left out of two games since Mourinho condemned Chelsea’s performance at Newcastle. Mourinho has not gone through any pretence of a make-believe injury, as so often happens, and it would be interesting to see how the past couple of weeks might influence a vote in the England dressing-room.

In 1978, with Ron Greenwood favouring Clemence, the London Evening News conducted its own survey of strikers and attacking midfielders. Of 22 players, nine voted for Shilton, two for Clemence (one being his Liverpool team-mate David Johnson) and 11 said they could not decide. If the same were to happen now, a quarter of a century later, the result would inevitably tell Hodgson he, too, needs to play the man in form.

One of the questions at his press conference on Thursday will be whether there is any value experimenting with both players in the same team against Chile. The injury to Danny Welbeck, the left-sided attacker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, opens a place that Baines, one suspects, could fill with distinction. Yet there is also a good possibility Hodgson will kill the idea stone-dead. He has not mentioned it during 19 months in the job, but he has spoken many times about the importance he gives to using players in their club positions.

Baines, approaching his 29th birthday, has built up some portfolio in his 21 caps, far removed from the player who once talked about not even feeling comfortable in his ability to play for Everton, let alone the national side. Cole, on the other hand, brings the kind of seen-it-all-before knowhow and defensive expertise that maybe his rival does not possess. The mind goes back to that goal-line clearance he made for Chelsea, in Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo, in February 2012, and its importance in their triumphant Champions League season. Or if you want a more recent example, his performance in the final of the European Super Cup against Bayern Munich. Baines is maybe the better choice against unremarkable opponents, when the emphasis will be on attacking and he would have the licence to break forward with those penetrative overlapping runs. Cole might have the superior credentials if England play one of the World Cup favourites and Hodgson wants solidity and experience. So perhaps there is actually something in the idea of rotation.

“Both have their supporters. Both are fantastic footballers. Ashley has been a lynchpin for so long. He has 100-odd caps. But Baines has always been appreciated. I am not going to say one is No1. It does give the manager a headache because I have to decide on one and whoever I choose will divide opinion.”

That was Hodgson after the Poland game. He left it there and his tone was of someone who wanted to give it more thought. Baines against Chile, then Cole against Germany, might be one option. Whatever happens, England are fortunate to have two fine players competing for one position. But two does not go into one and someone is going to be disappointed.

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