Despite all the talk surrounding the futures of both Romelu Lukaku and Ronald Koeman this summer, the loss Everton could end up feeling the most is of one of their own. Having joined the club as an 11-year-old, Ross Barkley was a still a teenager when he made his senior debut, and it wasn’t before long that he was having to shoulder the burden of talismanic status. Although there have been standout moments in his Everton career, they haven’t come with any consistency and, as a result, Barkley hasn’t ever hit the heights many had predicted him to. At a crossroads in his playing life, 23 is the sort of age where a player should be evaluating his options, and looking to commit to the type of club that is going to be best placed to get the most out of him.
For most, looking past his hometown club - where he’s loved and adored like only academy products can be - isn’t really an option. However, having that sort of status comes with its own set of pressures and, for some, having such a large cross to bear isn’t conducive to on field success. That’s not to say, of course, that Barkley has any innate inability to deal with expectation, but it’s only fair to suggest that it might not be the greatest environment for some to try and complete their development if there’s already a bar being set for the level of performance that’s expected from him week in and week out. In a tale as old as time, Barkley has been a victim of his early successes, and a result, people still aren’t entirely sure what type of player he is.
One doesn’t have to look far for evidence of Barkley being pigeonholed, because there’s an entire section dedicated to it on his Wikipedia page. According to Roberto Martinez, he’s a mix of Paul Gascoigne and Michael Ballack, which was a sentiment Roy Hodgson echoed. Frank Lampard - another player he’s bound to have been compared to at some point - went for the easy option, and said that he reminded him of a young Wayne Rooney, which is almost word for word Louis Walsh’s catchphrase. The trouble is, Barkley has spent so long being told who he reminds people of that he hasn’t been able to become his own man, and it’s only now with the emergence of Tom Davies through the academy that he has someone to share a portion of that talismanic status with.
Right now, Barkley’s biggest driver will be how aspirational he is, and where he sees those ambitions being best tended to. Having only played in Europe once with Everton, there’s an entirely different standard and version of the game he’s yet to fully experience, and while that might be something the club are building towards, there’s only so many years in a footballer’s career. England, too, is an obvious ambition. Pretty much a squad staple, he’s hardly logged any meaningful minutes in competitive fixtures, either coming off the bench in friendly games or being left out entirely. Put in his shoes, it’s hardly rocket science as to why he’s apparently considering making such a drastic change to his surroundings, is it?
That is, after all, the wider question that appears to be on the table: does he leave Everton, forgo his legend status and seek career fulfilment elsewhere? Or does he stay where he’s always been, gamble on his prospects and live with the possibility that in years to come he might regret not rolling the dice when he was given the appropriate window to? It’s not a small question, obviously, but when push comes to shove, that’s going to have to be the decision he makes, and ultimately decide on whether or not he puts his own career first, or Everton. Whether he likes it or not, that’s the way in which his decision is going to be reported on and presented to the public.
If he does opt to go, several clubs have been linked with his services, but none more so that Tottenham, who’ve been linked with making a move for over a year now. On the face of it - what with Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Mousa Dembele, Victor Wanyama, Eric Dier and Harry Winks coming through the ranks - there doesn’t appear to be much room for Barkley in the Spurs squad, Tottenham are a club who’re focussing on marginal gains, and improving their strength in depth. Rather predictably, the Moussa Sissoko transfer appears to have been both a complete waste of time and money, so that would be the space in the team Barkley could make his own.
Tottenham want to be playing on four fronts every season, so with three domestic competitions and the Champions League to contend with, their relatively small squad is stretched to its limit by the amount of football the club have to play. Therefore, they feel the effects of losing key players far more acutely than other teams in their position tend to. More than just a rotational player, Barkley would have plenty of opportunity to play across the course of a season, and should he perform well, the meritocracy in place under Mauricio Pochettino would see his elevation in to the first team, which would be his ultimate goal. Likely to play in the band of players just behind Harry Kane rather than further back, Barkley would be able to switch positions fluidly with the likes of Alli and Eriksen, run on beyond Kane when called for and really indulge his attacking instincts in a collective and focussed way that he hasn’t been able to previously.
A complete change to what he’s been used to at any other stage in his career, perhaps that’s what Barkley needs to kick on. The ability to shift roles, become a more diverse player tactically, improve his understanding of the game and be part of a team unit that have been trained to play for one-another are all appealing facets of the Tottenham experience under Pochettino. It wouldn’t be the first time that the coaching and environment created by the Argentine would change the career prospects of an individual player. On the face of it, after all, people aren’t wrong to suggest that the Ross Barkley that plays for Everton at the moment wouldn’t fit in to this current Spurs team - but that would be to ignore the potential for reinvention.
There is a perfect storm at play for Barkley, with his age, reputation, contract and availability all exactly where they need to be for the ball to be in his court as regards to what he does next. With their new funding, Everton will likely offer him as competitive a wage packet as anyone else would be willing to, but if he decides that there’s more to his ambitions than simply making his money and securing a legacy, that door is still open, too. This is an important summer for Everton, if they were to lose two or more of their star players, their manager appears to be the type who wouldn’t hesitate in following, so there’s another potential period of change for Barkley to consider, as well. Having played for his hometown team his entire life, his loan moves weren’t even huge changes of scenery: both in the north, to Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday respectively, no more than a couple of hours away from where he’s lived and worked since childhood.
Loyalty is a provocative thing in football, and it shouldn’t be sneered at. Barkley has every right to value Everton as his home and use that to stay for as long as he wants to, and nobody can accuse him of anything more sinister than staying true to himself and his roots, if that’s the decision he makes. However, if he does elect to have a change of scenery, and he does decide that a club like Tottenham would be the best place to take the next step in his career, it would be a fascinating thing to watch. Few could deny that Pochettino has worked miracles with players in comparable positions to Barkley, and with his contract in the balance, there’s no finer chairman than Daniel Levy to squeeze through an effective deal. Without doubt the biggest summer of his career to date, the decision that Barkley makes may well define the remainder of his career - and all we can do is sit and watch.