If his two brilliant free kicks stole the headlines, it was the return to form of Leighton Baines that could yet have the biggest impact over the season as a whole.
Although Baines made a point of not agitating for a move, the rumours and speculation had impacted noticeably on the England full backs level of performance. Not significantly, but enough, with Baines not his normal confident rampaging self. Until the half time interval at West Ham, it would be fair to say that Baines had enjoyed a subdued start to the new season. But all that changed in 45 brilliant minutes at Upton Park, with Baines powering down the left hand side, linking up superbly with Oviedo, Barry and Lukaku to create numerous opportunities for Everton and scoring two brilliant goals.
The Heat Map below highlights the work rate of Baines, with the former Wigan man tirelessly working the left flank. Everton struggled to make an impact in the first half, with the slow build up play preventing Baines from overlapping Mirallas on the Everton left. However the increase in tempo after the break provided both Everton fullbacks with extra space and Baines in particular took advantage, often pushing past Oviedo to cross the ball dangerously into the box and testing Jaaskelainen with a cross-come-shot which nearly crept in at the near post.
It was Baines’ set pieces that stole attention from the rest of his game and there can be no greater exponent of a free kick than Leighton Baines. Not even Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi strike with such regularity from a deadball, with the accuracy in Baines’ left foot setting him above the rest.
The two free kicks, which were only 4 yards apart, were both struck with fantastic technique. The first whipped past the outside of the wall and past the despairing Jaaskelainen in the West Ham goal. Baines explained after the match that he had noticed the Finnish keeper had taken a step to the centre of the goal, providing just enough space to fire into the top left of the Hammers goal. If the first was brilliant, the second free kick was World class. Not a single keeper in the World would have been able to stop the perfectly placed deadball, which struck the top of the right hand post and rebounded into the net. This time Baines achieved tremendous bend and dip to render the defensive wall useless and bring Everton level for a second time.
“I just try to mix it up and keep people guessing and luckily I was quite accurate and got them in the corners.
“I think on the first one Jaaskelainen’s position was quite central, so that made my mind up. And, obviously, having done that, he’s got to cover that side next time. I saw his position and changed my mind and went for the other side.” Baines talking to evertonTV
Martinez was delighted with his left back’s finishing, but he will also be pleased with the way Baines and his colleagues are adapting to his way of playing. If the first half showed the difficulties the Blues could face in this transition phase, the way Everton approached the second half proved that most teams will struggle to live with the Toffees when they add passing fluency to the pace and power they now possess in attack.
Baines linked up superbly with his teammates, completing 90% of his 44 passes. 41 were successful and pleasingly for Martinez, the majority occurred in the opposition half, further highlighting the importance of ensuring Baines operates as high up the pitch as possible. Baines was head and shoulders ahead of his opposite number Razvan Rat, with the experienced Romanian international unable to retain possession as Everton dominated the ball throughout the 90 minutes.
Roberto Martinez and the Everton board were determined to fend off the persistent pursuit from Manchester United in their prized left back and that decision was fully justified on a balmy afternoon at Upton Park. Baines’ brilliant display left the pundits purring and Everton will look to push on with Baines likely to play an influential role during the rest of the season.
For some reason the debate persists, but surely, once and for all, we can now all agree that Leighton Baines is England’s premier full back and should be lining up on the left hand side of the England defence in Brazil this summer.