It’s hard to imagine an Everton team without Leighton Baines in it. The popular left-back collected another 33 league and cup appearances to add to his proud total during the 2016/17 season, and another couple of deftly-taken penalties to his collection.
And yet, we have seen the evolution of Baines. From the marauding full-back that was one half of the much-loved ‘Bainaar’ pairing alongside Steven Pienaar, the Kirkby-born defender has become just that – a defender.
Yes, his defensive attributes were there for all to see in previous seasons – you don’t amass 30 England caps at full-back if you haven’t got them - but it was his attacking instincts that helped him become one of the leading left-backs in the division. But this season, at 32 years of age, it’s the other side of his game that has come to the fore.
In the Premier League, he helped keep 11 clean sheets, made 63 tackles – at a 70-per-cent success rate – 45 interceptions, 65 clearances and 161 recoveries.
That is not to say he offered little going forward. Baines’ natural talent and that gifted left foot lent itself well to Ronald Koeman’s exploration of a 3-5-2 formation, with the former Wigan man perfectly complementing the equally as adventurous Seamus Coleman on the opposite flank.
He completed 29 per cent of his crosses and set up three goals over the course of the league season.
In fact, Baines become the first defender to reach 50 Premier League assists when he teed up Romelu Lukaku to score in the 3-1 win over Burnley at Goodison Park in April.
Off the pitch, he has also taken on the added responsibility of being a mentor. The emergence of Tom Davies as a raw but talented 18-year-old proved one of the highlights of the campaign, and Baines deserves plenty of the plaudits for helping guide the youngster through the early stages of his burgeoning career.
He sees much of himself in his fellow scouser. “He’s a proper player,” said Baines after Davies’ man-of-the-match display against Manchester City.
“He trains well but he finds another level when he gets out on the pitch and that is always the sign of a proper player.”
We have often heard the same said about Baines.
Koeman has recognised the enormity of Baines’ role within his playing squad. “He is still a big influence (in the squad),” the Dutchman said in April. “In my opinion, he is one of the best players this season in the team.
“He is showing his experience, his cleverness on the ball, and in my opinion we talk too much about some players and less about some players and he is one of that.
“He really is one of the best left full-backs in the Premier League.”
Baines became only the fourth Everton player to reach this landmark, when he lined up against Sunderland.