Eyebrows were raised when Chelsea agreed a £15m deal to sign Ross Barkley from Everton in the January transfer window, and the first few months of the midfielder’s career in west London did little to dispel the sense that this would go down as a poor signing. The 24-year-old made just two starts in the Premier League under Antonio Conte, and although his absence could partly be explained by injuries, many felt he had a made a mistake in moving to Stamford Bridge.
It is still early days in 2018/19, of course, but the early signs are that Barkley does in fact have plenty to offer in the capital. While not part of Maurizio Sarri’s first-choice midfield three, the ex-Toffee has still played 280 minutes in the top tier this term – including 81 in his third start of the campaign in Sunday’s 3-0 victory over Southampton. Barkley was excellent on the south coast, brilliantly setting up Eden Hazard’s first-half opener and then getting his own name on the scoresheet shortly before the hour mark.
“I would say Sarri’s philosophy has helped me a lot because over the years I haven’t been coached much and I am at an age now where I understand football a lot more,” the midfielder said last week. “I know how important it is to take different tactics from different managers on board. I feel like I am ready to understand every aspect of the game.
“When I broke into the Everton side under Roberto Martinez I was playing in the No. 10 role and I had never played there before, so I was getting used to that role as a first-team player. But usually I was a No. 8. Before I broke my leg I was a deep-lying midfield player, so I have always been a central midfielder, either in a two or a three. Now I am in a three and I feel really comfortable with that.”
Barkley turned in some terrific performances during his Everton days, but it always felt as if something was missing – which brings to mind Arrigo Sacchi’s comments on Steven Gerrard a decade ago.
“When I was director of football at Real Madrid I had to evaluate the players coming through the youth ranks,” the legendary Italian boss told the Sunday Telegraph in 2008. “We had some who were very good footballers. They had technique, they had athleticism, they had drive, they were hungry.
“But they lacked what I call knowing-how-to-play-football. They lacked decision-making. They lacked positioning. They didn’t have the subtle sensitivity of football: how a player should move within the collective. And for many, I wasn’t sure they were going to learn.
“You see, strength, passion, technique, athleticism – all of these are very important. But they are a means to an end, not an end in itself. They help you reach your goal, which is putting your talent at the service of the team and, by doing this, making both of you and the team greater.
“In situations like that, I just have to say, Gerrard’s a great footballer, but perhaps not a great player.”
Whether or not Sacchi’s assessment of the former Liverpool captain is fair or not is a debate for another day, but similar comments could have been applied to Barkley during his own time on Merseyside. While no one has ever doubted the England international’s natural ability, his tactical understanding and reading of the game have frequently been criticised.
As Barkley admits, though, perhaps he just needed some proper coaching. Like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who swapped Arsenal for Liverpool in summer 2017, the Chelsea man has become a more polished player in recent times. He has demonstrated a better understanding of the game and is becoming more of a consistent performer, someone who can influence matches in ways other than simply smashing home a 30-yard strike now and again.
“Potentially he is a great player,” Sarri told reporters in his post-match press conference on Sunday. ”He has quality, very important ones in the physical and technical [aspects], now he is improving in the tactical point of view. He can be a very important player in England and for the national team.
“I am very happy with the goal and assist for him. I am very happy with him, he is improving all the time. I spoke to him from the first day that he has great physical and technical quality. Now he has improved.”
That improvement has plenty to do with Sarri himself, with the Italian having helped smooth out some of the midfielder’s rough edges. Barkley has always been a supremely gifted footballer; now he is becoming an effective player too.