For years, Ross Barkley has been shackled by expectation, defensive responsibilities and an uncompromising pressure from those in attendance at Goodison Park. Hailed as the future of English football whilst emerging into the Everton first-team, Barkley’s shine has been dimmed by a combination of self-doubt and unwavering dips in form. He was destined to follow the narrative and be the star that never was.
“He’s a player you can build a project on,” Roberto Martinez suggested in 2016, before he was duly shown the Goodison exit. And while Ronald Koeman attempted to do just that when he was appointed as the Spaniard’s successor in the summer, his patience with Barkley wore thin and the midfielder was twice dropped in the first half of the Premier League season.
“I am not sure – I am not sure,” Koeman replied when asked if Barkley would ever fulfil his potential. “He needs to improve the tactical aspect of his football, out of his position.
“He needs to be more clinical and have more creativity in the offensive part of the team but he is working hard on that and trying to get the best out of himself.”
Koeman’s comments sparked a determination inside Barkley, but it would take the emergence of Tom Davies, another local lad operating with a similar sparkle which Barkley enjoyed as an up-and-coming teenager in Merseyside, and a more offensive role in the Toffees’ midfield which would recapture the 23-year-old’s best form.
With Davies and January arrival Morgan Schneiderlin bearing all defensive duties, and Barkley pushed into a higher, wider role, he has become a key provider for Romelu Lukaku and has – alongside his aforementioned team-mates – transformed Everton into the form team in the English top tier, winning four and drawing two of their last six fixtures.
Barkley is enjoying his football again. His cocksure celebration before rolling the ball into an empty Bournemouth net during Everton’s 6-3 home victory embodied that. His effortless backheel to feed Lukaku’s fourth goal against the Cherries minutes earlier an indicator he is embracing his inner-youth and allowing it to drive his performances, with Koeman the beneficiary.
The stats also put some weight behind the praise earned from Everton fans. Barkley’s 48 key passes this season has already bettered his 47 of last, in 15 fewer appearances. Include the five assists he has registered in the current campaign and he has created more opportunities than any other English player in the Premier League. Of all Englishman in the top flight, only Liverpool’s Adam Lallana (7) has more assists to his name.
Barkley has also completed more passes (799) than Tottenham’s Dele Alli (618), in fewer minutes, and while many comparisons with the Spurs midfielder may be redundant, Barkley has completed more successful dribbles (34) than Alli (31), further highlighting the former’s ability to carry the ball and pick holes between opposition lines.
Koeman’s tutelage is unquestionably the major aspect behind the midfielder’s upturn in form – tenacity, a sense of freedom and a new-found subtlety the cocktail allowing Barkley to thrive. Yet before the turn of the year Barkley’s future at Everton was in doubt. Now, though, instead of a sideways jump to a middle-of-the-road Premier League club, a move to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United is being suggested, with excessive financial reward to boot.
To suggest the Portuguese’s attitude towards individuality outside the spine of his side would again stifle Barkley is a premature, but reasonable, assumption, though a move away from his boyhood club needn’t be the reasoning for a sustained period of excellence from the midfielder or a platform for him to thoroughly prove his worth.
Koeman’s rejuvenated Everton are again looking towards European football and the measure of their success ultimately sits with the likes of Barkley and Lukaku, who are rigorously responding to the demands of their manager.
Success is relative, yet Barkley is widely understood to have underachieved. Though to push him into a holding role is akin to stripping a magician of his hat, and to burden Barkley with such defensive responsibility is to take away his wand. Barkley’s determination to ‘do a bit of everything’ and overlook precision in favour of assertiveness has ultimately hindered his displays, though Koeman has stressed the importance of the former and slowly extracted the latter from his game.
Tactical nous and positional intelligence are important facets to any midfielder’s make-up, though Barkley requires a creative freedom to conjure up the spectacular performances of recent weeks.
Under Koeman, a man who understands how to effectively leverage his team’s strengths, Barkley may well develop into the player he once promised to be.