Progress and stagnation aren’t generally thought of as processes that occur side by side, but 12 months in the faintly bizarre career of Ross Barkley would seem to offer evidence that the two things aren’t always as contradictory as you might think.
On the face of it, real strides were made over the past year by Barkley, who swapped a water-treading also-ran for a trophy-hungry heavyweight, escaped the confines of a coach who never truly trusted him and stirred much excitement in those of us who have long been tantalised by the outer limits of his gung-ho talents. As the new season nears, a manager tailor-made for his skill-set has placed him at the heart of the side’s pre-season preparations.
Yet it was also a year in which Barkley’s reputation as a player wilted horribly, and for good reason: his season consisted of a grand total of four appearances, precisely half of which were from the bench and precisely none of which hinted at the rampaging brilliance with which he had carved his reputation as a player of thrilling promise. And that was the other thing – last year he turned 24, the sort of age where the notion of promise begins to ring hollow, where “wasted” tends to replace “exciting” as the go-to description of a footballer’s potential.
It seems a long time ago now but back in January, Barkley’s move to Chelsea prompted the mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, to contact the Merseyside Police regarding how exactly a player of such exquisite ability could be gotten hold of for a mere £15m. They need only have sent him the video of Barkley’s debut, an hour of blundering despair that made Everton look like master negotiators. Worse, it was bookended by gratuitous public shamings from his manager: first on the touchline for not being ready to come on, and then in the press conference, as Antonio Conte lamented that “when there is an injury to one of your best players it is not simple, especially when on the bench the only substitute is Ross Barkley”.
Even without the interventions of City Hall, Barkley was a political football, punted from dugout to directors’ box, his confidence merrily cast as collateral damage in yet another Stamford Bridge civil war. Then injury was quickly added to insult, Barkley enduring two months of hamstring woes and returning to fitness in time only to start in the final-day tonking at the hands of Newcastle.
All in all it made for a very strange season indeed. At an age where his peak years should be looming into view, the obvious comparisons were no longer with Paul Gascoigne and Michael Ballack, as Roberto Martinez had once made, but with Steve Sidwell and Jack Rodwell, hotshot midfielders ruined by a big move at a bad time. As Gareth Southgate pondered his squad for Russia and thought long and hard over the respective merits of Jonjo Shelvey, Jack Wilshere and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, one name was notable above others in its absence.
There is a bigger picture here. English football has always had a problem with producing pure playmakers, both in how it discourages restraint and composure in its more creative types, and in how it delights in hacking chunks out of any young legs that dwell on or carry the ball in midfield.
Few players embody this twin-threat better than Barkley, who has already seen entire swathes of his career chalked off at the treatment table and is a creator for whom top speed often appears to be the only speed available. If the truest playmakers are as adept at slowing the game down as they are at speeding it up, then Barkley can resemble a Formula One car without brakes, the popcorn blockbuster to the arthouse slow-burners of Iniesta and Riquelme.
Of course, a quick glance at other Scouse superstars of recent years is proof that this most English of traits needn’t be a barrier to glittering success, and if the examples of Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney are anything to go by the challenge facing Barkley lies not in learning to play the understated puppeteer but rather in working out how to unleash his all-action attacking style to maximum effect.
At which point, enter Maurizio Sarri, a coach for whom the phrase “all-action attacking style” pretty much doubled up as a job description during his three spectacular years at Napoli and one whose first few weeks at Chelsea have offered no little encouragement to a player entering the pivotal season of his career.
And in an age of bloated squads, myopic planning and the ruinous stockpiling of homegrown talent – and indeed at the very club that tends to demonstrate the worst of all three – it’s possible that the stars might just be aligning for Barkley, a hard-running central creator in a Chelsea set-up short on exactly that.
“He has to improve on the defensive phase, it’s difficult to play with Jorginho, Cesc and Ross all together,” said Sarri after Sunday’s Community Shield. “But I like him. He will be a very useful player for us.”
As his coach implied, there are more disciplined midfielders in Chelsea’s squad than Barkley, and certainly more cerebral ones. But if Sarri’s signature white-knuckle breakaways are to be replicated in west London, perhaps only Barkley and Loftus-Cheek are the midfielders truly at home when the action reaches the final third.
While casting Ross Barkley as the potential poster-boy of the Sarri era is a tad premature, the past year of the midfielder’s career is at least testament to football’s capacity to throw up the unexpected. This could just be a pairing that works well for everyone – although they’d better click quickly. If an attacker approaching his prime and Roman Abramovich’s latest employee have one thing in common, it’s that time is no longer on their side.