Has Ross Barkley’s chance at Chelsea already been and gone?

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
October 2, 2018

Within an entire career, a player can be celebrated and distrusted for the same reason. Nobody should know that better than Ross Barkley.

Barkley’s Everton career really began in 2013. Loans in the Football League with Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United had primed him for Premier League life and, when he did step out on to the main stage, it was with a reputation already established. Barkley was bold and skilful, an attacking footballer who quickly tempted the burdensome Gascoigne comparison under which so many have lumbered before.

But there was an appetite for him. In effect, he was an antidote. Decades’ worth of institutional coaching failure had neutered English players of their expression and turned flair into a scarce commodity. At the time of Barkley’s emergence, British football had become so enslaved to bad touch, better touch, low-risk pass midfielders that someone who took a risk, who had such obvious faith in his ability, was always going to stir the senses.

So initially the imperfections were easy to overlook. The indulgence, the lack of responsibility; a small, temporary price to pay for the fireworks. And there were fireworks: Barkley’s first Premier League goals were like a statement of intent – the slashing dagger at Carrow Road, the free-kick at Swansea and that marvellous slaloming run and finish at St James’ Park. As those goals were flying in, who didn’t think that his future was somewhere between the stars?

Who didn’t believe, also, that his issues wouldn’t melt away. He was prone to giving the ball away cheaply and his tangible contribution wasn’t always what it should have been, but those were ailments that experience would surely cure. As time passed, he would learn to apply his talent efficiently; he would know where on the pitch he could be expressive and when to be conservative.

To this day though, he remains more or less the same player. At different points, injuries, contractual situations and unhelpful personal relationships have conspired to stymie his progress, but Barkley has still remained oddly resistant to evolution. Equally, the challenges he has faced are hardly unique to his career and by the time of his move to Chelsea, eventually completed in January 2018, he had slipped into an ordinary orbit. Elsewhere, Dele Alli had risen at Tottenham, Jordan Henderson had become Liverpool’s captain, and Jesse Lingard had become a more credible option for Gareth Southgate’s England side.

More locally, Ruben Loftus-Cheek had emerged as a fine and arguably more rounded prospect. In the space of single season at Crystal Palace, Loftus-Cheek arguably developed further than Barkley had in his entire career. Worse news will surely follow, too, because Mason Mount’s start to his Derby loan is so far confirming what a special player he will become.

It’s as interesting a situation as it is perplexing. Prior to eventually moving south, Barkley had been linked with a move to Spurs. In theory, on a sound basis: Mauricio Pochettino fashioned a passable holding-midfielder out of Eric Dier, had done wonders for Moussa Dembele’s career and elevated Christian Eriksen to an entirely different status in the game. Barkley may have been English football’s greatest conundrum, but he wasn’t a problem beyond solving.

This, though, has always been the asterisk: with his Everton contract expiring, Barkley was desirable not for what he was, but for what he could be turned into. It’s a reality which recognised his talent, but which also acknowledges that even by that point he was considered soft clay – pliable, but without a definitive form. For someone who had already made in excess of 150 Premier League and continental appearances, that’s a strange situation indeed.

Nevertheless, Chelsea was a fresh start. He was not signed under the direction of Antonio Conte, Marina Granovskaia is presumed to have driven that deal, but he did receive the benefit of the Italian’s coaching. Now, with Maurizio Sarri having arrived, he is being exposed to a cutting edge ideology which, in theory, hinges on attributes which he definitely possesses. Barkley can cut lines with his passing and also owns the technique to receive the ball under pressure and extricate himself from attention; the conditions for his improvement have never been better.

But that isn’t currently proving the case – or at least, these first few months have shown little sign that an incubation is occurring.

Last week was a disaster for him. Whether he earned his move to Chelsea is incidental. He’s there and Sarri has seen enough to pique his interest. Two games against Liverpool may have tested that faith, though, because Barkley was complicit in surrendering a narrow lead at Stamford Bridge and, under different circumstances, might have helped to eliminate Chelsea from the League Cup.

In the minute before half-time at Anfield, he had received possession on the edge of the Chelsea area and, trying to beat three pressing opponents, misplaced a pass across his own box and into the feet of Xherdan Shaqiri. This time, Willy Caballero was out quickly enough to smother the resulting through-ball. Five minutes after the break, a ponderous back-header split his own defence and, again, Caballero was required to deny Sadio Mane.

Sarri must take some responsibility. Having seen what he did at Anfield, the decision to introduce Barkley with nine minutes to play in a game which Liverpool were starting to dominate doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Jurgen Klopp’s side thrive on the counter-press and, under the very conditions which examine Barkley’s greatest weakness, he reliably made two poor decisions in quick succession. On the first occasion he was caught dribbling away from his own box, but Liverpool failed to punish him. The second time they weren’t so charitable: shortly after Chelsea had regained possession, Barkley surrendered it again with a loose pass picked off by Joe Gomez and, seconds later, the lead was lost for good.

That situation called for a more composed player. The recently returned Cesc Fabregas was on the Chelsea bench so why he and his more reliable distribution remained there is hard to understand. Sarri might reason, though, that this experience will be good for Barkley and that, now burnt by Sturridge’s ruthlessness, he will emerge a better player.

But how often has that rationale been applied in the past? And how many more times has Barkley put his hand straight back in the fire?

The tragedy here, is that he had a window in which to impress. The signing of Jorginho earlier in the summer – and the subsequent redeployment of N’Golo Kante – greatly reduced his chances of ever becoming a regular starter midfield. The addition of Matteo Kovacic on loan saw those hopes recede even further. Still, the skillset and the tone with which he plays gave him a credible claim to being among Sarri’s utility options. The forcefulness, the intent, the aggression within his passing; how, the Italian would have reasoned, could those abilities not be of use?

In the last week, he’ll have found out: Barkley is a feast or famine type of footballer, a boom or bust player who remains desperately flawed by the skewed ratios in his game. At a club like Chelsea, where job security is determined by razor thin margins in desperately tight games, that is not – nor has it ever been – the kind of player who can be accommodated.

With Barkley, the risk has always been too great and the reward never quite enough. Most damningly, he has never, no matter who his coach has been, ever seemed able to address that problem. At Everton it was tolerated for a long time. At Chelsea, any goodwill may already have expired.

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