Leighton Baines is a very good full back. The statistics prove it. Leighton Baines has the amount of England caps that Wikipedia says he has. In the spirit of interactivity, you are invited to check that instead of being told. We are all going to be educated, but you have to put the effort in yourself, sometimes.
Leighton Baines can run and cross. Leighton Baines is not a natural left-back, he just happens to play his football there. There are few teams in the world that would not be improved by adding him to their squad.
Hooray! You might think, if you wished Manchester United well. Hooray, for adding this talent! You might think, if you wished Manchester United well. Hooray, for adding this talent to this squad in some need of rejuvenation! You might think, if you wish Manchester United well.
But you would be wrong!
“Why is that?” Ask the people that think “Hooray, for adding this talent to this squad in some need of rejuvenation!”
Well, I believe that Leighton Baines is in fact the incorrect signing for Manchester United at this point for a number of reasons.
Leighton Baines, then. Leighton Baines is a wretched signing for Manchester United. The reason being that he is essentially Olivier Giroud, but a defender. Sure, he is utterly competent. But at the same time he is an admission of defeat.
Manchester United are a club of excellence, whether or not you despise them. They are the pre-eminent club in England, and the greatest English team to compete in modern European competition. They are the club of Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane and Robin van Persie. To overlook such a fact would be wilful deviance of a kind not seen since Madonna was given the chance to prove/disprove her talents in Hollywood. Surely people are not that wilfully deviant?
Of course they are…
Leighton Baines is an utterly functional signing, to the point that it is viscerally disgusting. Manchester United fans will be hacking up handfuls of their own gallbladder onto their dinner in outrage. Bilious chunks of expanded DNA will be landing on evening porcelain in expression of all that will go wrong with this potential signing.
Let’s get technical for a moment here. Firstly, pace. Patrice Evra - the current incumbent of the United left back spot - is many things, but he is not slow. His form suffered for a while after he had a typically French workplace dispute with his national team, and when he had his run in with Luis Suarez.
But this season past, with matters largely settled, his performances have been that of a good, fleet-footed, if certainly not excellent, full back. There is less fear that any presence of an association football on the right hand side for an attacking side will result in a chance gifted to them by Evra and that level of comfort helped the Red Devils to the title.
Leighton Baines, however, has next to no pace. For all intents and purposes, Leighton Baines is a reasonably athletic cow. In a bad way. He cannot make any great contribution to a counter attack - the traditional method of Manchester United’s attacking. He cannot offer anything that Evra offers in this regard. He cannot break free, he cannot surge into midfield, he cannot even offer a noticeable change of speed when reacting to danger defensively.
He can, though, cross. Which is good if you are a boring, archaic side that indulges in the methodical 4-4-2. Of course, United are largely boring, but they are not a methodical 4-4-2. They have Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney (unless he gets sent to the glue factory) in attack. Both of them are capable strikers in the air, often very good, but to place an emphasis on this a miserable reading of football. Of course, knocking the ball towards the head of two excellent players is a largely understandable plan. But doing that in preference to using Michael Carrick, Thiago Alcantara (possibly) and Shinji Kagawa is incomprehensible, a retrograde step when United have blunted their tradition of flair far too much already in the last decade. Leighton Baines is very good at crossing, but it’s not apparent why that is worth £15 million.
And that’s the second thing: the price. £15 million pounds is the same amount of money that Manchester United may well end up spending on Thiago. That is the young, technically excellent and absolutely exciting Spanish international from Barcelona. Leighton Baines is 28 and a workhorse capable of crossing. The idea of value is an iffy one in football, but this comparable valuation only serves to highlight the need for the United board to sit down, smoke seventeen cigarettes and think again. And again, and again if necessary.
There are few that would argue Patrice Evra is the best left back in the Premier League. He was for a couple of years, but Ashley Cole has a higher average of excellence, and now neither of them are compellingly excellent. Therefore there is something to be said for replacing Evra, of course. However, there is nothing to be said for replacing Patrice Evra with Leighton Baines. The Scouser is old enough to be in his peak, and his peak simply is not good enough for the price. If Baines were 23, then his value would be reasonable, because he would have plenty of time to improve upon all his shortcomings, and there are plenty of those.
He is slow, as discussed, and that can’t really be improved. But beyond that, he has been playing professional football for a decade and yet his positional sense is relatively weak. Funny at Everton; not funny at Manchester United.
He is able to play as a solid left back, but there is no evidence that he is capable of matching the greatest talents of Europe, simply because he has never been regularly exposed to it. Patrice Evra is no worse than Baines positionally, and he is experienced in the Champions League, even if he is in (gradual) decline.
To buy someone at such a price, and with such little scope for improvement, is an acceptance of a status quo that Manchester United never accepted under Sir Alex Ferguson. Of course Fergie made some signings that didn’t work out. But he never spent a fortune on a stop gap player, nor did he invest in a pretty good finished article.
Baines is not a bad player, he is simply the wrong one. The culture of continuous improvement will be undeniably killed off - he is someone merely to keep Manchester United adequately stocked in left back, and not someone who offers anything unique, or anything like a quality equal to that on the continent.
Bayern Munich have David Alaba. Barcelona have Jordi Alba. Manchester United want to have Leighton Baines. That sequence is jarring because it is so obviously incongruous. There is nothing inherently wrong with Baines, but there is nothing obviously amazing either. And to win championships and to compete in Europe, you genuinely must be obviously amazing. You must have character.
And Evra obviously has that. Evra will goad Frank Lampard on YouTube. He will mock the decline of Arsenal. He will challenge the behaviour of Luis Suarez, and contest the integrity of Lilian Thuram. He is a man with heart and with a will to stand up for what he believes in. is right. That is what a club needs, regardless of whether he is captain or not. Leighton Baines doesn’t offer any of that, he offers sideburns and a Lego haircut. That’s fine for Everton, but Manchester United are not Everton - check for yourselves.
He’s not getting any better. He’s slow. His hair is rubbish. He’s old. He’s overpriced. Need I continue?
It’s fantastic that Leighton Baines exists for Everton, because he’s the best that Everton can afford and is the best player for their functional football. But he’s also, for the same reason, the wrong player for United.
Manchester United need genuine world class talent, not hard work and commitment alone. It’s not Leighton Baines' fault, but if David Moyes buys him, it’ll be known forever as his first big mistake in charge.
Read Alexander Netherton's previous columns here