Ross Barkley joins Aston Villa ready to press the reset button

Barkley is likely to make his debut for his new club against Liverpool at Villa Park on Sunday

Tony Evans
Friday 02 October 2020 09:51 BST
(Aston Villa)

If ever a player needed to push the reset button it is Ross Barkley. The 26-year-old has moved on a season-long loan from Chelsea to Aston Villa. For the best part of a decade he was overpraised and lived up to the hype too rarely. The time for unearned plaudits has gone.

Barkley is likely to make his debut for his new club against Liverpool at Villa Park on Sunday. That is ironic because the shadow of one of Anfield’s heroes, Steven Gerrard, has hung over the midfielder’s career.

Like Dele Alli, another putative England midfield saviour, Barkley was left out of Gareth Southgate’s squad for the friendly against Wales next week and the Nations League matches against Belgium and Denmark. The move to the Midlands is part of the player’s attempt to revive his international prospects.

There are many similarities between Barkley and Alli. Both are thrusting, attacking players who need a team built around them to produce their best form. Neither has proven good or productive enough to build a side around.

The template for this type of midfielder was Gerrard. The game has changed since the former Liverpool captain was in his pomp. That’s even before you begin to consider whether Barkley or Alli are anywhere near the class of the man from Huyton.

If Gerrard was coming through today, he would probably develop in a very different manner from the force of nature that burst onto the scene in the late 1990s. A tactical revolution has taken place in English football in the past two decades. At the highest level, central players need to be multidimensional. Gerrard transcended the traditional up-and-down midfield position because of his brilliance.

Barkley has suffered most in comparison with him. When he was emerging at Goodison Park, Everton were desperate to have their own local icon. They had similar physical gifts, including the power to burst past defences but there were significant differences in technique and – especially - decision-making between the two Scousers.

In mitigation, Villa’s new signing has been unlucky with his managers. Roberto Martinez brought a sense of refreshing freedom to Everton’s play when the Catalan took over at Goodison Park seven years ago but Barkley needed structure to develop his game. Martinez claimed that Barkley’s best position was as a No 10, ranging behind the forward line. Even Gerrard would have struggled in such a role at the same age. One Liverpool legend’s best periods came when he operated as almost a second forward in tandem with Fernando Torres. It was a much more specific job than the playmaking position Martinez was proposing for Barkley and Gerrard was a decade into his top-flight career. He had mastered other aspects of his game. Barkley did not have such foundations in place when Martinez made his suggestion. Likewise, Alli’s linkup with Harry Kane, which had echoes of the Gerrard/Torres linkup, came before the Tottenham Hotspur youngster had grasped the basics of his midfield responsibilities.  

Barkley never fulfilled his promise at Everton
Barkley never fulfilled his promise at Everton (Getty Images)

Martinez even suggested that Roy Hodgson needed to let Barkley off the leash to get the best out of him for England. That was never going to happen. The player later lamented, “Roy could have shown more faith in me.”

That is borderline delusional. At a time when Barkley needed more discipline and tactical awareness, Martinez let him have the run of Goodison.

Ronald Koeman took the opposite opinion. He did not like what he saw. The Dutchman wanted players who were aware of their team-mates and who could be relied upon to show good judgement on the ball. By then, Barkley had developed a reputation for running down blind alleys. After Martinez, a bit of tough love might have worked. Koeman’s toughness tends to be pretty loveless, though, and the midfielder went from being Goodison’s brightest prospect to becoming surplus to requirements. At a prime point in his development, he suffered from an absence of clearsighted coaching.

Antonio Conte did not want Barkley at Chelsea and there were suspicions that he was signed to bump up the English contingent at the club rather than fortify the first team. The Italian manager was already embroiled in a war of attrition with the Stamford Bridge hierarchy over recruitment when the Scouser arrived in January two years ago and Conte made it clear that this was not his choice of player. Maurizio Sarri tried to give him the midfielder a crash course in defensive tactics but advanced the opinion that Barkley “is not able to lead the other players.” This was a prescient, if cutting, verdict.

Villa need dynamic goalscorers in their midfield and, on the face of it, an in-form Barkley could be the answer. In his best season he recorded eight league goals. Production like that would make any loan fee worthwhile. 

Yet, even in his mid-20s, Barkley looks like a bit of a throwback. Liverpool only found the route to success when they stopped being obsessed with finding a replacement for Gerrard. Different eras require a different range of skills. Barkley needs to be more adaptable if he is to have any chance of becoming the standout player he once threatened to grow into.

The coming campaign will determine Barkley’s direction. The bottom half of the table is not the ideal place to reboot a reputation. Villa Park is a gamble but it beats treading water at Stamford Bridge.

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