Ross Barkley’s £15m move to Chelsea was officially confirmed on Friday, with the 24-year-old signing a five-and-a-half year contract with the defending champions. It’s been a difficult few months for the Englishman, whose proposed £35m deal fell through on deadline day in August.
At the time, he was still in the rehabilitation phases of a torn hamstring injury and returned to full training only a fortnight ago. So amid all of the confusion, trolling and headlines regarding his decision to pull out dramatically and wait until this month to make a decision about his future, it ultimately makes sense.
High-quality players who enter the final year of their contract with a club are always those who command more power when it comes to negotiating new extensions or alternatively, opting to wait for interest from elsewhere before assessing all choices. That’s precisely what Barkley did and even though Everton supporters will criticise him for doing so, it was again in his best interests.
Sports fans are fickle, perhaps none more so than football lovers. The ability to change one’s opinion about a player, manager or team within an instant is done immediately and with no remorse. So the fact that many Blues turned their back on a prized asset – one of their best players – during a testing period in his development, meant the opportunity to leave would have been a more attractive alternative for Ross to make.
Then-manager Ronald Koeman regularly criticised the midfielder in public, which would not have done any favours for his confidence. After all, it’s easy to forget that he’s still learning his craft and is far from the finished article despite showing flashes of individual brilliance. With that in mind, his contract situation was common knowledge too. As clubs circled around Romelu Lukaku, Barkley’s long-term future at Goodison was never certain either, despite having boyhood allegiances and all.
At a time where Everton’s diamond should have been embraced, encouraged and motivated to do more, he was outed as another talented prospect whose decision-making ultimately let him down when it mattered most. Which was a harsh assessment, to say the least.
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It speaks volumes that a player of Steven Gerrard’s quality was able to identify the pitfalls behind Koeman’s show of ‘tough love’, whilst publicly insisting his midfield counterpart would flourish among better players.
“If he was to go to a Tottenham or Chelsea, he would fly and all the Everton fans would say why did we sell him? I think from a selfish point of view, maybe a move would be the best thing for him.” – Gerrard on Barkley and his future, two years ago
Everton’s former technical co-coordinator Tosh Farrell worked with players like Jack Rodwell, Wayne Rooney and Ross during the early stages of their respective careers. Although Rodwell has struggled to kick on despite his promising potential, Rooney flourished during a successful 13-year stay at Manchester United prior to his Everton return six months ago.
Tosh believes that this Chelsea move could prove hugely beneficial for Barkley, as he represents a player with potential still to fulfil but crucially needs a manager that trusts him to progress with experience over time.
“He’s not going to develop sitting on the bench but if he gets on and is allowed to flourish, we’ve seen what he can do. Under [Roberto] Martinez, everyone was drawling. Koeman came in and wasn’t prepared for the kind of mistakes that a young player makes – he wanted something ready-made, which Ross still isn’t at the moment.
At 24, he hasn’t reached his prime but to reach it, needs players and a manager who trusts him. Mistakes tend to be eradicated as you get older because when you’re young that adrenaline rush can overtake you.”
So, what’s next?
The bulk of questions regarding this move relate to where Barkley fits into the current Chelsea side, considering just how much midfield depth is at Antonio Conte’s disposal. With Ross’s arrival, there are now five players who can all feature from central midfield, but Conte’s 3-4-3 preference means that only two can start at once.
The regular pairing this term has been N’Golo Kanté and Tiemoue Bakayoko, the latter of which signed from AS Monaco for a reported £35m this past summer. It’s fair to say that despite his ability, Bakayoko has failed to impress on a regular basis – predominantly due to his inconsistent passing and tendencies to appear lax when out of possession.
Kanté played a pivotal role in Chelsea’s title success last season and is normally one of the first names on the team sheet, while Cesc Fabregas has responded well to playing a reduced role last term by regularly proving his creative genius is too good not to start. Danny Drinkwater joined from Leicester for £35m on deadline day but since recovering from an injury himself, has not yet justified being more than a useful squad player.
When you break it down like this, it’s hard to imagine Barkley usurping either Kanté nor Fabregas for a starting berth at present, though it must be stressed that like Cesc, his best position is in a number ten role behind the striker.
However, he can do a significantly better job than Fabregas in a midfield pairing alongside Kanté, who covers ground quickly and allows team-mates to focus more on the attacking aspects of their game. In truth, it’s something that Ross is not used to, regularly being rotated to either play as an attack-minded central midfielder who gallops through the middle third into the danger zones, or in the free roam attacking role where he still has to focus more on his defensive responsibilities.
All in all, it’s something which he’s not best suited to. His best displays have been where he’s given the freedom to attack if and when he pleases, similarly to the role which Eden Hazard currently occupies. Both Willian and Pedro have been alternating a spot alongside the Belgian as part of a tricky pair who help spearhead attacks alongside Álvaro Morata, but neither is consistent enough to do so against tougher opposition.
Some supporters have voiced their discontent at Barkley’s acquisition as, despite being a cut-price fee, he’s potentially blocked the pathway for other midfielders including Middlesbrough’s Lewis Baker and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in particular to return to Chelsea from their loan spells and earn a first-team place. The 21-year-old has already received assurances over his long-term future with the Blues, as he’s enjoying a successful stint with London rivals Crystal Palace.
Barkley has all the tools to succeed at Chelsea and ultimately silence his critics too doing so. It’s imperative that he works hard for this to succeed, not least taking inspiration in part from Victor Moses’ rapid progression under Conte and aiming to become an influential player for years to come. Then of course, there’s the small matter of representing England more regularly in future. After all, the World Cup is only six months away. Combining in midfield alongside the likes of Jack Wilshere and Dele Alli to create chances galore is a fearsome thought.
Stats source: Squawka