It’s understandable that there is uncertainty when English players sign for Chelsea. This is especially the case with those English players signing with the club for 8 figure transfer fees. To date, only 4 have done so. The largest of these fees were for a long time attributable to Shaun Wright Phillips and Frank Lampard whose respective records at the club appear in stark contrast.
In the main, however, the Frank Lampard era of English Chelsea player falls into three easy, and sometimes overlapping, categories: League winner, Champions League winner and/or national team first choice. Consequently, Lampard, John Terry, Ashley and Joe Cole have come to form the bar that English players arriving at Chelsea have to meet. If they don’t, they tend to disappear off the radar without necessarily going on to more enviable heights, as the likes of Scott Parker, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Ryan Bertrand and Daniel Sturridge can evidence. These were good international players but they struggled with the standard set by their more esteemed peers who were featuring at the core of the Chelsea and English national first team.
That scrutiny from many supporters and (it seems) the club itself remains in place. It affects views on young players (yet to break through) all the way through to occasional criticism of Gary Cahill, captain and holder of his own Shed End tribute banner. Good English players can survive for a time but if they’re not immediately Lampard, Cole or Terry-standard then quick judgments can be made. This is not even a new thing. Even in my late adolescence, I remember the frustration in some quarters of the Chelsea community when Lampard himself was signed instead of Giovanni van Bronkhorst back in the summer of 2001.
Back in those days, the question was about the standard of football and experience Lampard could match up to. The players who’d come before him in the central midfield position were the likes of Roberto Di Matteo, Gustavo Poyet, Dennis Wise and even Didier Deschamps. The comparison seems strange now but, at the time, these were players who’d achieved things that the young former England U21 captain hadn’t by a long chalk. World Cup winners, internationals and/or club legends.
The context for the apprehension around Lampard’s signing had also come from the expectations at pre-Abramovich Chelsea. They were ironically similar to what they are are now: Champions League football and a tilt at the title. And trophy winning managers were still getting the tin tack if anything happened that threatened those aims. As Gianluca Vialli can testify. As a result, more than a few questions were asked about a player who’d come from a middling West Ham side, had never played Champions League or won anything of note. It is arguably because of that start that Lampard’s development is so special.
Here is the sort of prism in which the likes of Ross Barkley and Danny Drinkwater are viewed in SW6. Drinkwater at least has the alibi of being a league winner and Champions League participant. Barkley, however, comes from an Everton side that’s not competed with Chelsea long enough for many Chelsea supporters to have properly scrutinised his talents. Despite his occasional blockbuster strikes and the previously large transfer fee rumours attached to his name, Barkley isn’t heavily marketised attempting to flog you headphones, aftershave or increasingly ugly football boots.
And yet, these are things we have to be wary of when forming our biases as to what a player might achieve. This website recently prepared an excellent video analysis examining the contribution that Barkley has made on the pitch over the course of last season. More often than not, it is the numbers that give the best indication of what’s to come from a player. Barkley’s are impressive and merit consideration. There was little that genuinely disgraced him against the two players used by our stats department for comparison: Cesc Fabregas and Christian Eriksen, two of the most celebrated attacking midfielders in the league. However, when I investigated further, I found even more that impressed.
As there are lies, damn lies and statistics, I tried to consider the context in which Barkley’s statistics were set against. Yet there was plenty that caught the eye. At 23 years old and in a side that was not even in the top 4 last season, Barkley was creating more chances than all but 4 players in the league. He had also created the highest number of chances out of any English player, including Dele Alli who was attracting far greater headlines.
Looking back over a two season period from August 2015 to May 2017, Barkley is level with Alli for the highest number of assists from an English player. This in a period where Everton have consistently enjoyed less possession than Spurs and finished much lower in the league in both 2015/16 and 2016/17. Barkley had created many of those chances from open play for a striker, Romelu Lukaku, who was enjoying his highest Premier League goal scoring season and who ended up at Manchester United as a consequence.
Here’s why I think these figures are worth the attention of Chelsea supporters. Consider that Barkley is young player using the ball productively for a side that enjoys a relatively low amount of possession and not competing for the league. Everton had on average 3% less possession per game than Chelsea last season with Barkley finishing only 1 assist behind Pedro and 4 behind Cesc Fabregas (the only Chelsea players ahead of him) in the end of season assists table. Secondly, consider the comparison of Barkley’s productivity against those who’ve had much more of the limelight such as Dele Alli or Adam Lallana, both of whom played in teams that had more possession than Everton in 2016/17. With the lower amount possession that Everton enjoyed that season, Barkley matched or beat the contribution of the best English players playing at sides finishing higher up the table than his. Consider also that the likes of Lallana and Alli play alongside arguably better players to retrieve the ball and better players they can link play with.
These are the facts but here also is the theory. Yes, Chelsea have considerations to make regarding the league’s home grown player registration rules. However, these rules can potentially be met by players with backgrounds like Andreas Christensen and Cesc Fabregas who came to English football as teenagers. The club’s concern, in these post Brexit days, has surely turned to the fact Gary Cahill is the only English player near the Chelsea first team. Personally, I’ve always been ambivalent about the undercurrent of ethnocentrism in English football but, if Chelsea have been swayed by the need to add an “English core”, it’s obvious why Barkley would be an attractive proposition.
The often cited rule goes that young English players attract premium prices when being sold to other English clubs. Raheem Sterling’s £49m transfer to Manchester City testifies as the most recent example. A 23 year old Barkley at £15m seems almost spare change by comparison. If Chelsea are going to replenish an English contingent that once made up nearly a third of the English national team between 2004-7, then Barkley’s acquisition for a relatively modest sum seems a decent place to start.
And then there’s his position. Barkley comes into a Chelsea central midfield in which N’Golo Kante is the only fixture. The joke around Stamford Bridge goes that Kante is worth two players but this season, it’s a jest that has been required, on occasion, to become a reality. An ambitious, attentive Barkley, applying everything that Conte instructs him to do, has as much opportunity as anyone to stake a place in the midfield 3. Neither Danny Drinkwater or Tiemoue Bakayoko has carved out a guaranteed position for themselves, which is all the more surprising given that 3-5-2 has generally been Chelsea’s direction of travel. Antonio Conte himself has also been quite clear about the option of playing Barkley in a midfield three as well as further forward as a creative alternative:
“I think he can play in midfield, if we play with three midfielders, or number 10 if we play 3-4-3. Ross Barkley is also a creative player.”
There are of course pitfalls for the more doubtful of Chelsea supporters to highlight with this transfer. First, if Barkley is being seen as a creative midfielder then surely he must eventually compete with Cesc Fabregas for a spot in the team. How is this a battle that Barkley wins? And if he doesn’t win it, how will being benched affect his development? Secondly, if Barkley is to slot in alongside Kante he will almost certainly have to accept a portion of the defensive responsibility, at both league and Champions League level, required of any Chelsea midfielder. Is this the kind of responsibility that Barkley, at 23 years old, has the discipline or the will to undertake? This issue becomes all the more relevant when contemplating the first challenge that a match fit Barkley could face. The Chelsea midfield is around a month away from facing the remnants of arguably club football’s best ever midfield when Barcelona come to town in the knockout rounds. As even Conte himself has said:
“Before playing we must be sure that he is into our idea of football. Otherwise, it’s a problem for him and it’s a problem for the rest of the team.”
Thirdly, like Drinkwater, Barkley comes to Chelsea with the disadvantage of still recovering from a long term hamstring injury. This already puts Barkley at disadvantage next to players who not only have learned Chelsea’s pattern of play but are also actually match fit. Midseason is never a good time for a player to be getting to his first taste of competitive football, particularly when the stakes are approaching their highest.
These are just a few of the challenges that Ross Barkley faces in satisfying his doubters. However, both Barkley and Chelsea have the tools to mitigate potential pitfalls, especially with Antonio Conte as the overseer.
Conte’s record with the development of midfielders such as Paul Pogba at Juventus was a prequel to the work he did defensively with the likes of Cesar Azpilicueta and Victor Moses. In both cases, talented players were given positional purpose and space for their talent to shine. At Juventus, Pogba came into bloom alongside the industry of Arturo Vidal (read N’Golo Kante) as well as the craft of Andrea Pirlo (perhaps read Cesc Fabregas). He then left Juventus as the world’s then most expensive player. As Pogba himself remarked, Conte was “the perfect man to help me achieve my aims”. If Conte can do the same again with Barkley, then maybe, just maybe, the decision to give Barkley the famous number 8 shirt will not look so strange in a few years time.