As last week’s Champions League game between Real Madrid and Manchester City opened up in the last quarter, ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley exclaimed “What’s he doing there?” as substitute full-back Paulo Zabaleta found himself in the six-yard box; Tyldesley’s been doing football at the highest level for decades now, with a spell at BBC television in between his second spell at ITV, but it seems he still hasn’t come to terms with the concept of passing and movement.
Fortunately that’s not the case for England’s two best left-backs, as both Leighton Baines and Ashley Cole showed with their attacking and telling contributions in Premier League games this weekend. Baines has been in stunning form all season, running the first-half of last Monday night’s game against Newcastle, before once again being the main man within an excellent Everton first eleven that won away at Swansea on Saturday.
Though his first two England starts in friendlies against Egypt and Mexico were shaky, perhaps as a result of nerves, which cost him a place in the 2010 World Cup Squad, Baines is now a serious contender for the first choice spot, which has been unchallenged since Cole took Wayne Bridge’s place in the Chelsea team. Bridge dominated a few big games himself in his best form, notably the Champions League quarter-final win at Highbury, when he found space throughout, and popped up to score the late and deserved winner in one of the many years in the noughties the fawning British press had already crowned Arsenal as European Champions elect.
Cole meanwhile has improved as a defender over the years, but again it was the attacking side to his game that took the eye as Chelsea were fortunate to beat Stoke City on Saturday, with his movement off the ball and calm finish winning the match in a move he was instrumental in to begin with.
In the last fifteen years Bixente Lizarazu, Philip Lahm, Fabio Grosso and Jordi Alba have all shone at international tournaments with their ability to control games from the full-back position. In early 2010 Gareth Bale did that for Spurs from left-back, where he had space to run into, with an inverted midfielder (Niko Kranjcar) playing in front-of him, and Tottenham strong in possession. For the first time in a while he went back to left-back in a back four on Sunday, due to injuries to two players who would have been picked there ahead of him. Tottenham though seem to drop off as a unit without the ball at White Hart Lane under Andre Villas-Boas and as result were pushed back against QPR, and Bale had no opportunities to influence the game.
In the second-half, Jan Vertonghen moved to left-back, where he plays for the Belgium national team, and he produced the match-winning break, with a beautifully weighted and timed pass to the overlapping Bale, before then later making a goal-saving tackle in his own box as he covered for his centre-back.
For full-backs to show their strength going forward, it helps when their central midfield dominates, and they have space to attack, which is why Martin Peters once played at right-back for Norwich, as it was where there was the most space to exploit. Baines and Cole are doing that for their clubs now, as the Barcelona full-backs do on a near weekly basis in La Liga.
When the culture in the presentation of football moves away from headlines to analysis, there is more likelihood that there will be less of the bores who you hear coming back from matches who think players can only play in one place with the realisation that passing and movement isn’t an alien concept.
The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview for free and download from Amazon and Smashwords. With past recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League, with an epilogue at the end of the 2012 season. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.