“We have got to that point where Ross Barkley knows how special he is and what he does,” said Roberto Martinez three years ago. Perhaps the now-Belgium but then-Everton manager should have consulted Barkley himself, as it transpires that the 21-year-old really did not know what he was doing. He was playing on instinct rather than under instruction. This season a rejuvenated Barkley has revealed that he “hadn’t been coached much” at Everton, where they were so excited by what he could become that they neglected to actually help him get there.
He was England’s great hope. He was a maverick. He was the total entertainer who should not be curtailed by fripperies like tactics. Most damagingly, he was ‘the new Gazza’. But while Gascoigne was the most wonderful loose cannon and clearly could not be coached, Barkley absolutely could and should have been long before he arrived on the Chelsea training ground in front of the utterly unimpressed Maurizio Sarri. He was never special enough to be exempt from guidance.
“In the first month I was here, he was in trouble,” admits the Italian, who may even have been unaware of the great expectations that had been placed on the shoulders of Barkley. To a relative outsider, he was a bit-part player at Chelsea and barely a footnote for England; he could have so easily found himself in a pretty miserable two-man gang with the over-promoted Danny Drinkwater, who may never play a single minute under Sarri.
“Then he started to improve in every training, in every match,” he continued. “I am surprised at how quickly he has adapted if I think back to the first month, but not if I think of the last two months. I like him very much, because I think he is a complete player. He has physical qualities, he is fast. Technically he’s very good.”
For all the plaudits liberally thrown at Barkley by journalists and ex-players desperate for an old-fashioned English entertainer for the modern age, nobody had ever described him as ‘complete’. They talked of vision and panache, they talked of bare-faced cheek and insouciance, but they never said he was ‘complete’. That would have made him sound too reliable and frankly too dull for the role assigned to him as the saviour of English football.
What’s clear from Gareth Southgate’s selection of Barkley for England’s last three competitive games is that he prefers this version of Barkley, who now looks up when he gets the ball instead of blindly turning and running in the direction of the opposition goal. This Barkley is mature, disciplined and adaptable. This Barkley is an asset for club and country.
The irony of those 2015 quotes from Martinez is that he dared to suggest that England – then managed by Roy Hodgson – needed to mirror Everton’s tactics to get the best out of Barkley. It was England that needed to adapt to this fantastic young player and not the reverse. “If England don’t want to play like that, if they just want to wait and get set and have the ball, Ross is not special,” said Martinez, disparaging Hodgson’s obsession with dominating possession.
Fast-forward three years and Barkley is happily playing Sarri-ball; his pass completion rate is higher than that of even Jorginho. “I think he’s on the way to becoming a very important midfielder, not only in England,” says Sarri. Not ‘special’, but ‘important’. The latter sounds more sustainable, if not quite so exciting.
“There is no doubt in my mind he will be the best player England has ever had,” said Roberto Martinez in November 2014. As the fourth anniversary of those ludicrous quotes passes, Barkley is more than happy to be simply part of an England team enjoying its best year of a generation. He’s not the new Gazza but nor is he the old Ross Barkley; he’s just a very good footballer.