Everton can rely on Baines as shuffled squad poses questions vs. Chelsea

Europa League progress and the accompanying 1-1 draw against Hajduk Split on Thursday mean Everton manager Ronald Koeman has now gone six games unbeaten in all competitions in each of his two seasons at the club.

Yet this promising start faces a stern test on Sunday. Less than 72 hours on from the Croatia trip, a week that began at Manchester City on Monday ends with the Toffees visiting Stamford Bridge for a date with champions Chelsea.

Trying to end a run of 22 league visits in as many years since their last win at Chelsea, Everton face an uphill task with Koeman potentially without nine first-team players while attempting to shuffle his squad for a third game in six days. Whether to opt for a three- or four-man defence is a key decision, and the 5-0 drubbing dished out by Chelsea in the corresponding fixture last season may play a part in the choice.

Everton paid a heavy price for mirroring the Chelsea formation back in November and had already conceded twice when Koeman abandoned the three-man defence after just 36 minutes. At the other end, a solitary shot off target in the 70th minute was the sum total of the attacking output.

The same formation would seem a non-starter on the evidence of the previous meeting, but dwindling options in central midfield could force the use of wing-backs in an attempt to bolster the middle third of the pitch.

Idrissa Gueye should start in the middle of the park after a precautionary absence on Thursday, but who plays alongside him in central midfield and in what formation are key decisions for Koeman. It is an ironic twist that Gareth Barry recently left in search of regular football but would likely have played an important role this week, particularly with Morgan Schneiderlin suspended and James McCarthy injured.

Concerns in such a significant department make certainty in other positions a welcome relief, and one such place is Leighton Baines in the left-back or left wing-back role, depending on formation.

After an initial spell on the sidelines when first signed, the 32-year-old has been a permanent fixture in the team. A decade on from his breakthrough, Baines remains in the team on merit, even accounting for the absence of genuine cover and a lack of pressure on his place.

Aug. 25 marked exactly 10 years to the day since his Everton debut, while the second leg against Hajduk Split saw his 380th appearance for the club in all competitions. This longevity underlines his quality, along with an adaptability that has seen Baines excel over the years as either the main creative threat in the team or in a more restrained full-back role.

Perhaps the hardest modification in that time has been coping without Steven Pienaar in the left-midfield role. An ongoing failure to recruit a genuine replacement has left Baines isolated and effectively playing two positions in recent seasons. His continued success with this often-thankless task owes much to his intelligence and all-round ability.

The lung-busting forward runs are less frequent but tremendous awareness and appreciation of space help compensate. There is also an eye for a pass up there with many of the attacking players at the club.

These attributes and status as the first and only defender to reach 50 Premier League assists make it easy to overlook an equally sound defensive game. Reading of the game, tackling prowess and general know-how more than compensate for a lack of stature.

Some might feel compelled to argue those traits reflect the player Baines was and not the one he is at present. However, this season has already seen a number of telling contributions at both ends of the pitch, serving as reminders of his influence.

When Everton toiled to find the breakthrough against MFK Ruzomberok in the first leg of their Europa League third-round qualifier in July, a familiar swish of the left foot provided the win and a one-goal advantage for the second leg.

When Stoke strived for a way back when trailing 1-0 on the opening day, sending on Peter Crouch and proceeding to launch the ball toward the penalty area, Baines coped as well as any of his teammates, subtly unsettling Crouch and interrupting his attempted headers.

When a moment of inspiration was required in the first leg against Hajduk Split earlier this month, a driving run and floated cross gave Michael Keane the easiest of headers for his first goal for the club.

When a loose pass left the defence exposed in the recent draw at the Etihad, a well-timed sliding tackle on Manchester City's Kyle Walker snuffed out the danger just as the home side looked set to capitalise.

Amid new signings and occasional rotation as Koeman manages two competitions in the early stages of the campaign, Baines joins Keane as one of only two players to play every minute of the first six matches.

Baines is an ever-present in an Everton team making an unbeaten start to the season. Leave Stamford Bridge with both sequences still intact and all concerned can reflect well on an encouraging start ahead of the international break.