Ross Barkley risks sending himself into ordinary orbit

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor
July 28, 2017
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Ross Barkley’s negotiating position is really rather weak. He’s scored some nice goals for Everton and even sustained good form over several months, but there’s something peculiar to his insistence now that he requires a new challenge.

After all, what was the nature of his first challenge and when, conclusively, was it determined that he met it?

Barkley has decided to leave Goodison Park, Ronald Koeman confirmed as much two days ago, and is presumed to be of interest to Tottenham and Manchester United.

Three years ago, that interest would have be understandable. Barkley was one of English football’s brightest young things and the prospect of his natural exuberance and skill marrying with a more refined understanding for how to use that ability was thrilling. The Paul Gascoigne comparisons were obviously laboured and contrived, but not entirely inappropriate. Barkley was exciting.

But no longer. His flashes of excellence are occasional rather than regular and, though his form for Everton during the second-half of 2016/17 was generally good, nothing about it implied that a transfer – a move up the table – was a necessity.

So why is he leaving Everton?

In football, we must always assume that there is more to a story than meets the eye. However, superficially at least, there has never been a better time to be an Everton player. The club are enjoying the most aggressive summer in their history and have signed some excellent players, all of whom address problem areas and are capable of contributing significantly.

Most recently, the club’s public pursuit of Gylfi Sigurdsson has gathered pace. Swansea continue to hold firm and have resisted offers of up to £45m. Interesting – not least because it reveals what Ronald Koeman believes his side’s deficiencies lie. Everton are seeking more creativity, excellent set-piece delivery, and a dynamic playmaking threat from behind their forward line.

All qualities, ultimately, which Barkley could provide; there is evidently a place and a role for him to grow into. Sigurdsson’s delivery in the final-third is superior, his free-kicks and corners are also better and, crucially, he is a good deal more economic with the ball at his feet, but Barkley could – under the right conditions – evolve to a similar level and bring some additional dynamism to the role.

That’s why this situation is curious. Barkley is not an Everton talisman. He is not an example of a player who has excelled at his current club, has had to drag them through seasons single-handedly, and whose ability now deserves a grander stage. Instead, he’s a player who has the opportunity to grow into a role within a team which now contains better players and is only likely to get stronger; the conditions are nearly perfect for him. The wages on offer at Goodison Park may not be the most decadent in the land, but the balance of football and finance must be close to a near-perfect equilibrium. By all accounts, the contract that he is refusing to sign at Everton is worth around £100,000 per week, which is probably as much as he can possibly earn without relinquishing the guarantee of first-team football.

He should, of course, retire before joining Manchester United. Jose Mourinho has no interest in developing players, making them better, or giving them the opportunity to learn. Consequently, United’s interest is either a figment of an agent’s imagination (a convenient “get on with it, Spurs”) or an invitation to sit on a substitutes’ bench. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that a move to Old Trafford would result in Barkley becoming the next Luke Shaw – an outlet for Mourinho’s belligerence and a prop to be used in his media performances.

A non-starter, in several senses.

But Tottenham are a more plausible destination – although even that move wouldn’t be supported by too much logic. Barkley would not make more money at White Hart Lane (or Wembley), as Daniel Levy enforces a strict wage cap which will not be restructured until the club’s new stadium is built. In fact, if the reports as to the size of Everton’s offered extension are accurate, he would actually have to take a pay cut to move to London. Harry Kane is on a six-figure wage at Spurs, and Hugo Lloris, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli are all similarly high-earners, but Barkley would not receive (and would not deserve) parity with any of them.

That would be a sacrifice worth making if a first-team place was guaranteed, because Spurs are a Champions League team and Barkley presumably craves that spotlight. But there’s no place for him. In fact, without a injury crisis decimating Pochettino’s midfield, the chances of him starting games in meaningful competitions are remote. He could improve and Pochettino could hold a match to his latent potential, but that kind of development would depend on consistent selection.

Furthermore, to even contend for a regular place Barkley would have to be reconditioned and re-built. He has recently had surgery on a troublesome groin and has consequently missed all of Everton’s pre-season to this point, meaning that he would begin life at Tottenham from a standing start. A difficult situation to face at any new club, but particularly so in this instance: Pochettino is notoriously demanding and sets a punishing physical standard.

But that’s only relevant if Barkley is deemed to suit that environment at all. His grievance with Everton apparently lies in his belief that he’s under-appreciated, that Koeman does not indulge him in the same way as Roberto Martinez, and that his talent is worth more than the basic wage offered. But, while the idea of what Barkley could be worth conjures some gaudy numbers, the reality is less generous: what is it that he does that Everton are under-pricing? The occasional stylish goal and the periodic, short bursts of form? Players should be rewarded for what they are or what they show real inarguable proof of becoming, not for what they were once predicted to be.

If that’s a fair representation, then Pochettino – or any other manager with active interest – might want to entertain the possibility that Barkley isn’t quite as pliable as assumed. Ideologically, he and Koeman are not far apart and both demand a certain level of submission from their squad. If one has encountered difficulties with a certain type of personality, the chances are that the other would too. As recently as Friday, The Times’ Matt Hughes reported that Pochettino’s aim is to convert Barkley into a Moussa Dembele successor, garnishing his excellent first-touch with the attributes required to create a long-term replacement for the ageing Belgian. A fine theory, albeit fanciful given the latter’s habitual need to put the ball at risk, but one which would depend on Barkley’s receptiveness to coaching. Some players are soft clay and have an endless capacity for self-improvement, but on the basis of his career to-date he is not one of them.

It’s a tenuous proposition, one which depends on a very large transfer fee and some perfect-world strategising. It’s one which could work wonderfully well, of course, but not necessarily in the a+b+c way which is commonly assumed; Pochettino is a wonderful coach, but he is only as effective as those who he works with allow him to be.

For the player, it’s an awkwardly timed power-play. Informing his contractual situation should have been the reality that, as things stand, he wouldn’t start for any side within the Premier League’s top-six – and that he should be making whatever concessions necessary to change that. The surrounding context, of course, is the 2018 World Cup. Barkley is out of the England reckoning and with just a year to go he’s running short on time. Whether rightly or wrongly, a large transfer to a Champions League side would reanimate the conversation about his international credentials, but such talk would quickly quieten if he was to spend the season on a team’s periphery. Barkley is not Jack Wilshere or Theo Walcott and will not just default back into the reckoning when fit, instead he needs to actively convince Gareth Southgate that his talent, so often discussed and debated, is more than just theory.

Needless to say, his best chance to do that remains at Everton. If this situation is rooted in Barkley’s personal life and he or his family, for whatever reason, would benefit from a move, then that would reframe the dynamic. If, however, it’s a footballing or financial decision, it’s the kind of status lunge which will likely stymie his career at its most crucial moment.

The nagging suspicion is that he’s one wrong turn away from becoming an afterthought in English football – of becoming a good player, but one of little consequence. The glow which comes from once being thought of as a generational talent lasts for a while, probably longer than it should, but if a player hasn’t made good on that potential by the time he reaches his mid-twenties, he is typically de-categorised for good – branded with a mark of disappointment and tossed into that big pile of underwhelming English players supposedly destined to change the game forever.

Ross Barkley needs to be very, very careful, because that iron is already warming in the fire.

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