Who will go to Brazil: Baines, Cole, Flanagan, Gibbs or Shaw?
With the World Cup just one month away, Roy Hodgson is in the process of selecting a squad capable of not only winning matches but, perhaps more appropriately, avoiding embarrassment.
Fortunately for him (and us), the player pool appears significantly improved on a season ago with a raft of emerging talent and a further barrel of unexpected form players washing up on shore.
One position benefiting from this fortune is a newly vacant role whose previous incumbent reigned for just over a decade: left-back.
Really, there are only two spaces on the plane with arguably four, perhaps five, individuals dancing around the landing bay waiting for the music to stop (although the white-shirted half of North London would have you believe their floral-titled fullback is a sure thing).
Let’s look at the realistic candidates and weigh up their prospective arguments.
The England veteran has amassed one hundred and seven caps for his country over the last fourteen years and, he would argue, has at least one more tournament in him. Having featured in the league just sixteen times this season, the once-considered “best left-back on the planet” isn’t even now considered the best left-back at Chelsea and, therefore, may struggle to justify his selection at International level. What Cole has on his side, though, is experience - a trait widely held as principally significant on the biggest stage.
Jon Flanagan has encountered quite a rise into prominence this season while deputising for Liverpool’s injured fullbacks. His versatility could prove invaluable in providing cover for both flanks, although his lack of involvement at the highest level might prove problematic. What the Premier League's leading tackler (of all defenders with over twenty appearances: 3.45 per game) lacks in experience, he makes for with youthful exuberance, heart and bite.
Injury-prone Gibbs is the most under-appreciated, under-discussed man in the Premier League today. Arsenals first choice left-back is a highly capable, stylish defender who has amassed twenty-five competitive European appearances over the past six seasons. Capable of playing tight, intricate football, Gibbs has suffered from an inconsistency arguably caused by almost perpetual periods of convalescence. Experience and ability are on his side, though the prospective risk of injury doesn’t act in his favour for selection.
Widely regarded as the new first choice left-back for England, Leighton Baines is almost guaranteed selection. With a plethora of both defensive and attacking attributes, it’s hard to see much, if any, fault in his game. One possible problem is Baines’ lack of experience at the top level, having never played in the Champions League or an International tournament. This characteristic, however, is shared by his rival candidates and is thus unlikely to be detrimental to his drafting prospects.
What can be said about Luke Shaw that hasn’t already been said this season? His escalation in stature this term has been extraordinary – an escalation resulting in his PFA Team of the Year pick at just eighteen years of age. Of the five candidates in question, Shaw leads the stats in clean sheets (13 in 34 games) and successful dribbles (55), while coming in second to Baines in accurate crosses per game, touches per game (72) and points accumulated (52). Perhaps, though, Shaw is simply too young to represent his country on the world stage just yet. He has outlandish potential, but perhaps risks becoming a victim of too much, too soon.