Goodison Park turned out to be a place for making statements on Monday night.
There was the fan in the Bullens Road stand who stripped down to a pair of blue Speedos and swimming goggles and had the words ‘Channel swimmer’ scrawled on his stomach. Down on the pitch, there was somebody else underlining his own prowess: Ross Barkley.
On a night when Everton were without their usual holding midfield pair of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, Barkley had the rare responsibility of a central midfield role, alongside the tenacious young Bosnian international Muhamed Besic. The way in which he responded during the 3-1 win against Queen’s Park Rangers – lighting up Goodison with a brilliant opening goal and displaying the discipline often considered absent from his game – felt like a significant moment for the 21-year-old.
This has been a difficult autumn for Barkley, who missed the start of the season with a knee ligament injury and whose patchy form since returning in mid-October led his manager, Roberto Martinez, to drop him to the bench for the trip to Manchester City two weekends ago. Yet against City he came off the bench to add much-needed impetus to Everton’s play and Monday night was an even bigger step forward.
A notable problem for a sometimes ponderous-looking Everton this season has been the absence of players bursting forward and making what Gary Neville described, in an excellent recent dissection of their failings on Sky, as the “hurt runs” necessary to open up defences. Barkley, with his driving runs, helped them to do that during his impressive breakthrough campaign last year, and on Monday he was at it again, while also displaying an impressive passing range and winning more tackles (six) than he had previously managed in a Premier League match.
Barkley himself said last month that he “might drop back into central midfield” as he matures. Yet, though he filled in ably for Barry after a tactical shuffle during last season’s Merseyside derby at Goodison, Monday was the first time he has really shone in the role for 90 minutes.
Neville, his coach with England, described him afterwards as a “monster” and when he gets going, his momentum can be irresistible – summed up by the way he burst forward from the halfway line and left QPR defender Nedum Onuoha for dead, before flashing a shot past Rob Green for his first goal of the campaign.
At such moments, comparisons with Paul Gascoigne appear inevitable, yet it is worth noting that only a few weeks ago, Bobby Robson’s words about Gazza pre-Italia 90 might have been more pertinent. “He doesn’t know yet about releasing the ball at the right time, he doesn’t know about being secure with the ball in dangerous positions – he still does irresponsible things,” Robson said, and the same criticism can be levelled at Barkley at times.
Steven Naismith, who marked his return from injury with Everton’s third goal on Monday, said it was natural the young Liverpudlian should still blow hot and cold. “It’s the normal kind of British mentality, where he is expected to be a world beater as soon as he comes in,” he said. “Young players are going to be hot and cold [and] it’s not until they hit their mid-20s they will be very consistent. Ross has suffered from a bit of that.
“He’s got all the talent in the world but he’s got a lot to learn and you just have to give him time. He will make mistakes and he will maybe come on in games and be effective, or he will come on and lose the ball. He needs to learn the times to go forward and do his bit and the times to keep it simple. But that will come with experience.”
For that reason Martinez and Roy Hodgson, the England manager, have both preferred to hand him a roaming attacking role, though Naismith sees no reason why Barkley cannot grow into an all-rounder for club and country and noted that his attitude and eagerness to learn stand him in good stead.
“When he plays as a No 10, or a bit further forward, he has less defensive responsibilities, whereas [against QPR] he had to switch on and be more defensive-minded,” added Naismith. “You have to keep reminding him, but we have got great players who can mentor him, like Gaz Barry.
“He’s got a lot to learn and after the World Cup there was a lot of expectation. Getting an injury wasn’t great for him but he’s got real quality and his attitude is spot-on for any manager. He will work as hard as he can, he will do extra training and that’s all you can ask. I think, if we are patient with him, he will be a terrific player for Everton and England.”
The future can wait, though; Everton, if they are to build on Monday’s win, will be simply glad to have him blowing hot this Christmas.Reuse content