Ross Barkley has always been tipped for stardom. After his Everton debut in 2011, Mikel Arteta talked of the 17-year-old’s bravery on the ball, while Louis Saha claimed that Barkley was quicker than him and discussed his power and passing. By 2013, Roberto Martinez was tipping Barkley to be a star of the 2014 World Cup and comparing him to Michael Ballack. Even this month, Dean Ashton says that Barkley is the closest thing he has seen to Paul Gascoigne.
“I first met Ross when he came to us as an 11-year-old and I'll never forget he had this ability to shoot with both feet from great distance,” said Neil Dewsnip, Everton’s former academy head coach, in 2011. “One game against Yeovil stands out. First he scored a goal from 25 yards with his right foot that flew into the stanchion. That was special enough but, five minutes later, he did the same thing from the same distance. All the coaches on the touchline that day looked at each other as if to say ‘that's not normal’.”
Perhaps those predictions of grandeur made Barkley a hostage to fortune, but there is an inescapable air of disappointment when discussing his progress since. More than five years on from that debut, we are still truly waiting for this breakout star of English football to… well, break out. Barkley is already older than Gascoigne was at Italia ‘90, and Michael Ballack – a relative latecomer to international football – had already won a Bundesliga title and joined Bayer Leverkusen at 23.
If the theory is that Roberto Martinez, with his ultra-positive, sun's always shining, ‘you’re playing brilliantly Ross’ outlook on life and coaching, was the worst possible manager to demand the best out of Barkley, this season has offered plenty of evidence in defence of that claim. Replacing Martinez, Ronald Koeman opted for a tough love approach, publicly questioning Barkley’s performances and insisting him to improve.
Koeman did not do that through a warped fetish for criticising flair players, but to play on the traits of Barkley’s personality. ‘Prove me wrong’ was one of the pillars of Brian Clough’s management of key individuals in his team, and Barkley is one who requires micromanagement. His performances since November proved Koeman’s strategy successful, ending with Barkley’s call-up to Gareth Southgate’s first squad as permanent England manager.
There have been very few criticisms of Southgate since his appointment, but leaving Barkley on the bench against Lithuania and Germany attracted plenty. The Daily Telegraph’s Matt Law, a staunch defender of Barkley, expressed his astonishment that the midfielder had stayed on the bench, leaving him wondering exactly what he must do to get a chance in an England shirt. Barkley himself liked a tweet pointing out his absence from England’s recent matches. That is the method du jour for the p*ssed off footballer.
Yet Barkley is not at the centre of some anti-Ross conspiracy, and England managers are not prone to ignoring their best players for no good reason. Barkley has not started a game for England in over a year, not started a competitive match since October 2015 and only ever started in one tournament match for his country. That was the dead rubber against Costa Rica in 2014. Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce and Gareth Southgate have all chosen to operate without him.
I understand the reason for selling the positive spin on Barkley. He is young, talented and hungry, and demonstrates moments of great splendour. Yet nor too has he earned status as a cause celebre. Barkley does not merit a campaign for inclusion in England’s starting XI, with pithy hashtags such as #RossTheBoss and #BarkleysPremierLeague. If England are to use two attacking midfielders in a 3-4-3 formation, as Southgate did against Lithuania and England, the form of Adam Lallana and Dele Alli is far more deserving of that role.
This weekend gave Barkley an opportunity to prove Southgate wrong, just as Koeman motivated him to do the same. Picked in a youthful Everton front six containing Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Tom Davies for the Merseyside derby, Koeman asked Barkley to dominate against a Liverpool midfield missing both Lallana and Jordan Henderson through injury.
Barkley emphatically wasted the opportunity. He made three bad tackles and was booked once, was lucky to avoid red for a frustrated lunge on Dejan Lovren, gave the ball away with 35% of his passes, slowed down attacking moves through an insistence on taking multiple touches of the ball and regularly lost possession. The tempestuous side of Barkley’s game was apparent in the ‘sit down and thrust arms at the referee’ schtick that Jack Wilshere - another England just-not-quite - has also mastered.
If there is an accusation that Barkley has not yet proven his ability to thrive against the highest-profile domestic opponents, another charge is that his game intelligence - I’m sorry for using the phrase - is more generally lacking. Too often he takes four or five touches when one or two would do, and his collection of frustrated fouls are growing in number.
“If I was playing with him, I wouldn’t be falling out with him every other game, but every five minutes,” Graeme Souness said after Saturday’s game. “His decision making is poor in the extreme.”
This is not intended as a denigration of Barkley, quite the opposite. The intense exasperation over his flaws only serve to highlight his aptitude. We are waiting for a potentially special player to develop and mature, and nothing is more infuriating than waiting.
Barkley may only be 23, but he has played over 200 senior career games. The contrast with teammate Romelu Lukaku, the current top scorer in the Premier League and rumoured to be subject to offers of £60m plus, is stark.
There is talk too of Barkley leaving this summer, with Tottenham the club mentioned most often. Two years ago, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City would have been keen admirers; now Spurs fans are doubting whether Barkley would be an improvement on their current options. The richest clubs see more reliable, more developed and, yes, more talented options abroad. Barkley is not yet a game changer in the biggest games.
‘Two more good performances will only add to the feeling that Barkley is far too talented to be ignored by his country,’ wrote Law in Barkley’s defence following his England ‘snub’. ‘Like it or not, Southgate should not need Twitter to tell him that.’
That is precisely the point: Barkley is proof that natural talent is not quite enough, and nor too is an ability to produce in moments rather than across entire seasons. For every two steps forward in his career, one more back. We’re still waiting for boy wonder to become man.