Leighton Baines is in the form of his life, but if the 28-year-old Everton left-back wants to fulfill his ambitions of playing in the Champions League, he will have to leave.
Unbeknownst to many, Baines started out his football career on the Kop supporting Liverpool and playing in the Reds' youth system as a left-winger. He was, however, rejected by Liverpool, but when both Wolves and Wigan came in for the youngster he decided on life with fellow Liverpudlian Paul Jewell at the Latics.
Jewell immediately recognized the diamond in the rough he had picked up from the Reds' scrapheap and gave the 17-year-old a debut to remember against Jason Koumas and West Brom in the League Cup. This inauspicious start was the beginning of a superb apprenticeship that saw David Moyes bring him back to Liverpool to wear a blue shirt in 2007.
Now, 11 years after his full debut and Leighton Baines is arguably the best left-back in Europe this season let alone the Premier League. To do this, Moyes has utilised Baines' huge reserves of energy and his natural instinct as a left-winger to make the player the most important element of his team.
That initial statement is made all the more amazing when you realize that Baines is not a natural defender and that he has to work extremely hard on the defensive side of his game. Known for staying back after training to improve upon his defensive skills and his natural leaning toward his lethal left foot, Baines is also one of the best professionals in the top flight.
This dedication to his trade and an extremely astute manager have combined to make the left-back an important member of the first team. As such he plays a major role both defensively and offensively from a traditionally defensive role.
This term, as Everton sit on the cusp of qualifying for the Champions League, Baines has performed above and beyond his normal duties. He is responsible for creating an outstanding 77 scoring opportunities from left-back, when combined with Steven Pienaar, his left-midfield partner, that tally reaches a most excellent 129 chances.
When you delve further into Everton's chance-making statistics you realise that the rest of the team have only contributed a further 164 chances. In other words, Baines has created 26 percent of all of the Toffees' goal-scoring opportunities, and 44 percent when combined with Pienaar.
To break this down further, over 40 percent of all of Everton's attacks are initiated from the left side compared to 27 percent through the middle and 30 percent from the right.
Add in his 83-percent pass-completion rate, a tackle success rate of 80 percent and a 31-percent completion rate from 216 crosses, the fact that he loses possession less than once per game and that he is also a dead-ball expert, and it is little wonder that Liverpool and Bayern Munich were courting him during the summer of 2011 and that Manchester United and Chelsea are monitoring him now.
Key Leighton Baines Statistics for 2012-13:
|Minutes played||2,070 (every single minute)|
|Chances created||77 (Premier League high)|
|Cross accuracy||31% (68 from 216: highest amount of crosses in EPL)|
At the time, Baines spoke of his desire to play in the Champions League (via the Mirror), the best football competition for club or country in the world.
"It wouldn't be ideal leaving this league," he said. "But I do have ambitions to get to the Champions League level and hopefully the tide will turn at some point and enable us to do that here.
"It would mean a lot to do it here. It has been a while since Everton were at that level and it looks a tougher task, given the money other teams are spending.
"I do have those ambitions to play at that level. Sir Alex Ferguson said this week that the Champions League is bigger than anything and it is. It is the pinnacle and everyone would like to get there. I will just get my head down and keep doing what I am doing."
Given those huge statistics, his thoughts on playing in the Champions League and his importance to the English international team, this summer would be the best time for the player to move on.
Having only turned 28 in December, Baines is still a viable option for many of the top teams because of his huge influence on the flow of games. This player map from FourFourTwo's Stat Zone shows Baines' importance on the pitch.
Moves to Manchester United and Chelsea seem unlikely regardless of recent speculation (via the Independent) for a number of factors. Both clubs already possess world-class talents in Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole. United have also recently signed Alex Buttner as apprentice to Evra, while Cole has agreed a new one-year contract extension to keep him at the Pensioners until the summer of 2014.
City are a very real possibility due to the fact that both their current left-backs, Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov, pale in comparison to Baines. Add in the all-important Champions League element of home-grown players and the prospect of Baines in a sky blue jersey becomes all the more real.
Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur are very interesting in that Baines would seamlessly step into both North London-based teams. However, Arsene Wenger has 23-year-old Kieran Gibbs at his disposal, and it would be anathema to every philosophy he holds dear to oust an outstanding prospect like Gibbs for a veteran like Baines.
Leaving us with Spurs as, possibly, the chief rivals with Manchester City for Baines' signature.
Like Everton, Tottenham lean heavily upon the left side and Gareth Bale when initiating most of their attacks. Unlike Baines, though, Bale plays in a far more advanced role. If you consider that Real Madrid are more than likely to bid for the superb Welshman during the summer you must also consider that Spurs will do everything to replace the star.
Andre Villas-Boas has already captured Lewis Holtby for next season and there can be little doubt that the German U-21 captain will slot straight into an advanced midfield role.
Add in the fact that both of Spurs' current left-backs are average at best, Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Naughton, and the capture of Baines would improve them defensively while also offsetting the potential loss of Bale. Put a dream scenario of Bale and Baines together and Spurs' left flank would be almost unstoppable.
The elephant in the room during all this speculation is Everton's finances. The club are £45 million in debt and only spent the fourth-lowest amount on transfers in 2011. In other words, the Toffees are now being outspent by promoted sides and need to balance the books through player sales.
Everton would, of course, be loath to lose the 28-year-old Baines, who is arguably their most important player. However, financial constraints added to his contract ending in 2015 make next summer the best time to sell their prize asset.
There will be no shortage of suitors. Each and every top Premier League side are guaranteed to be monitoring the situation, such is Baines' reputation. Clubs as far as PSG and Bayern Munich will surely also enter the fray, if and when he comes up for sale.
Everton's motto reads as "Nil Satis Nisi Optimum," it translates as "nothing but the best is good enough."
The motto rings through in its every meaning.
Leighton Baines has been the best left-back in the world this year and deserves to be playing at the highest level—he might just have to leave Everton to achieve it.
You can follow me on Twitter @WillieGannon