Once again, another year of Ross Barkley confusing every single football fan about what actually is his best position, and his role in a team.
When Frank Lampard was confirmed as Chelsea manager almost a year ago, many fans were curious to see how he’d handle the midfield puzzle. In particular, questions were levied about how best to use Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, two players with undoubted quality, but equally, two players that had struggled in their first year in England. Ross Barkley seemed to be out of the picture completely in most people’s eyes.
Pre-season seemed to alter perceptions completely. Barkley was deployed on the left and in the centre of the attacking triumvirate in a 4-2-3-1 formation and seemed to thrive. He scored against Barcelona, RB Leipzig, Reading and Borussia Mönchengladbach, putting in excellent performances along the way – arguably the player of pre-season, and earned his start on the opening day against Manchester United. The pick of the goals was a spectacular free kick against the Royals to get Chelsea on level terms.
At Old Trafford, he produced an underwhelming display as Chelsea went down against the Red Devils in rather stunning fashion. This time, the England international played on the left-hand side of that 4-2-3-1. It was atypical of a player who promises a lot, but often delivers little. One of the big criticisms levied toward Ross Barkley is a lack of consistency, and once again this was evident.
Left on the bench against Leicester, he put a solid shift in as Chelsea beat Norwich, but was underwhelming as Chelsea spurned the lead against Sheffield United at the end of August. Once again, the concerning issue was Barkley’s end product. In a team which was trying to attack and creating plenty of chances, Barkley had not scored or assisted in his first six Premier League appearances, which were dotted between periods on the bench as the likes of Mason Mount asserted themselves ahead of Barkley in the pecking order.
Although he scored his first goal of the season against Grimsby in September, his action would be stunted throughout the Autumn period with a niggling injury and when he returned to fitness, he struggled to make matchday squads. As already explained, Mount has impressed more than Barkley this season and with Kovacic’s renaissance, Kante’s undeniable qualities when fit and the calm tempo-setting of Jorginho, it is hard to make a case for Barkley to be a starter until he becomes more consistent.
Barkley finally played against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup and he performed well, grabbing a goal from close range after Hudson-Odoi’s shot was parried. This game did bring into sharp focus Barkley’s profligacy in front of goal and where his decision-making hurts him – a number of attacks were stunted because he picked the wrong option, played the wrong pass or took on a silly shot. The goal was the kind he doesn’t score enough of either – following in and gambling on keepers parrying efforts; a trait which defined his manager Lampard’s career.
It’s often said that some footballers are born with a ‘footballing brain’ and a capacity to make the right choices. Players not in this very small sect need to work hard to develop it. Barkley sadly falls far in the latter camp and despite promising much, he continues to fail to deliver.
To his credit, Barkley had started to find some form before the COVID-19 break, grabbing an assist against Hull in the next round of the FA Cup and putting in a very solid performance against Spurs at Stamford Bridge in February. His follow-up strike clipped the post and sprung back to Giroud to volley home for the opener, and his precisely-weighted lay-off was just right for Marcos Alonso to thump home. Good performance aside, Barkley’s problems are laid bare when you realise that was his first Premier League assist since April 2018.
He didn’t start the next match against Bournemouth, but came roaring back in March. Firstly, he started in the FA Cup against Liverpool and being an ex-Everton player, it was no surprise to see him fired up. Alongside Billy Gilmour and Kovacic, the Scouse playmaker helped to embarrass, bewilder and overwhelm the Liverpool midfield, as Chelsea surged into a deserved lead. However, the best was yet to come – Curtis Jones was dispossessed, and the ball flew upwards. Olivier Giroud towered over ‘Greatest defender of all time’ Virgil Van Dijk, and, despite the Dutchman taking him out, the ball spun away to Barkley just outside the centre circle. He drove forward, travelling a good forty yards as the Bridge screamed at him to pass the ball to the better placed (and more clinical) Pedro. Barkley ignored him and instead rifled home a finish from twenty yards which arrowed viciously past Alisson. The celebration showed that Barkley enjoyed that one.
Having slayed one Merseyside team, Barkley then turned his eyes onto old club Everton. Relentlessly booed for every touch, he quickly set about shutting them up. A terrific passing move involving the midfield ended with Barkley threading an inch-perfect pass to Pedro and he confidently finished. He later played a simple pass to Willian to get a second assist as he crashed home, but, overall, his performance was sublime and a timely reminder to Evertonians that booing the hand that used to feed you can sometimes have very negative effects for your team.
How to assess Barkley’s season? Distinctly average overall. He hasn’t really kicked on at all since coming to Chelsea, and now aged 26 he can now longer be considered young potential. He hasn’t been bad per say, but simply has done nothing to really stand out from the other midfielders. The performances against Liverpool and Everton aside, it would be hard to pick out a game where Barkley really has impressed. Otherwise, he has just meandered.
As a squad player, he could be an okay option if he did manage to put more consistent performances together as he does strike the ball well and when in full flow, can be very difficult to stop. However, with the return of Ruben Loftus-Cheek to full fitness, and the emergence of Tino Anjorin, Barkley’s minutes may be even more limited next season.
As a result, it might be time to cash in the England international whilst his stock is still relatively high, as Chelsea should easily be able to make a profit on the Scouse midfielder.
Overall Mark out of 10: 4.5
Edited by: Dan