Quality left backs emerging in EPL
Any conversation about left backs that does not begin with Giacinto Facchetti has already taken a wrong turn. At Internazionale under Helenio Herrera in the 1960s, Facchetti defined the European imagining of an attacking fullback: When Inter crushed Liverpool's hopes of a first European Cup final (on its way to a second successive title) in 1965, the
Since, and especially in the last decade in England, most revered fullbacks have been attacking ones. Conversations about such (left-sided) players in the Premier League in recent years have pretty much begun and ended with Ashley Cole and Patrice Evra, routinely the best exponents. The Frenchman has featured in three of the four PFA teams of the year named since his first full season for Manchester United; the incredibly consistent Cole was one of few England players whose reputation survived unscathed last summer's World Cup, and he was named the team's Player of the Year 2010 by England supporters last month.
This season hasn't exactly shattered the status quo -- Evra and Cole are currently the best performing left backs in the official EA Sport Performance Index, which is based on minutes, results and clean sheets, goals and assists, and details such as tackles and shots. But three-quarters of the way through the campaign, when thoughts begin to turn to candidates for team of the season, neither Evra nor Cole seems such a straightforward pick at left back as before.
Maybe it's foolish to quibble with statistics, and I'll inevitably use some to back up mentioning the players discussed below. But the official data sticks to only what can be quantified and weights nothing -- sensible, but not at all how any of us actually assesses things as we watch from the stands or on TV. Players like Cole and Evra are part of successful teams and since results contribute to the index, that is reflected in their scores. But as spectators, our senses are stimulated by more visceral measures.
Take Everton. David Moyes' side has lost almost as many league matches as Chelsea and United combined (eight to their nine) and spent most of the season within a few points of the relegation zone. Moyes has faced questions about his future -- the club's future. Yet it's been impossible not to think that Leighton Baines would be top of a lot of people's lists; he's has been brilliant, assisting or scoring almost a third of Everton's league goals. Baines still considers Cole to be setting the standard, but
Impact isn't a factor that lends itself to number-crunching, but it's an inevitable part of more human ways of judging players. Not many people would make a case for Stephen Crainey featuring in the team of the season (he's the ninth-placed left-back in EA's index), but Blackpool is a very different prospect with and without his willingness to look forward -- his passing ability is more akin to the Tangerines midfield than the rest of its defense -- allied to reliable tackling skills.
The former Manchester United youngster Phil Bardsley, at Sunderland since 2008, had seemed to be on the slide from promise to journeyman, but has had an impressive season switched to the left back berth at the Stadium of Light. Perhaps opinions might be swayed by the two excellent goals he has scored in 2011 -- if his
Bardsley's move to the left was prompted by an injury to Kieran Richardson, and there have been other notable performances from right backs filling in 'inside out' -- Glen Johnson's defensive credentials seem forever under scrutiny but he looked reinvigorated by duties on the left, helping Liverpool keep four clean sheets in recent weeks. Aleksander Kolarov's shakiness has kept Pablo Zabaleta at left back for Manchester City, and though he's been embarrassed at times, he demonstrated his worth with a strong performance at Arsenal in January (at least until that unfortunate red card, later overturned).
At Aston Villa, Stephen Warnock's drop down the pecking order has led to Luke Young, Fabian Delph, Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark making appearances at left back. In his breakthrough season (he's still only 21) Clark has been remarkable, comfortable enough in possession also to be utilized in midfield, and scoring four goals. He may still be destined to end up in the center, but Gerard Houllier's decision not to shop for a left back in January is indicative of his confidence in his current options.
Birmingham City's Liam Ridgewell, who has been converted from central midfield to center back to, this season, left back, has also scored four goals in a quietly impressive campaign. Contributing to defense and offense, out of position at fullback, isn't straightforward. At Stoke, Tony Pulis usually has two center backs operating out wide, and their natural reticence going forward shifts the onus on to the wingers and makes it easier for opponents to double-up on Stoke's most creative players.
For artistry, there have been few better than Newcastle's Jose Enrique. Highlights packages have often -- and not incorrectly -- focused on midfielders Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan, but watching Newcastle in the flesh it has been hard not to be bewitched by the Spaniard. Building attacks from simple, effective triangles with the relatively limited Jonas Gutierrez or storming forward on his own, Enrique is one of those players that crackle with something's-about-to-happen energy. His deliveries have been on a par with Baines and his footwork is probably better. Had he had Tim Cahill to aim at, Enrique's assist count (currently two) could have
And we haven't even got on to those who have improved, players such as Arsenal's Gael Clichy and Benoit Assou-Ekotto at Tottenham (where the injured Gareth Bale may yet prove to be the Facchetti-esque plundering fullback Harry Redknapp envisions). Even if we're not exactly spoiled for "world class" performers, this year's conversation about left backs is a much noisier one -- three pints down, finger stabbing, "the ketchup's the defender, ok?" bar babble, where we're used to a brief, monosyllabic exchange. It's great. Now, imagine this salt is Michel Salgado ...