Ross Barkley has finally come to the party.
Hyped since his early teens, the 20-year-old is now a household name in Premier League terms, having played in all but two of Everton's games this season.
Roberto Martinez has unleashed his young prodigy in a freer role behind the striker, playing as the Toffees' No. 10—a position he's also appeared in for England.
Long term, this seems a more natural fit.
Barkley's versatility was first revealed following an injury to Leighton Baines in the recent Merseyside derby. A reshuffle left Gareth Barry at left-back and forced Barkley into a deeper role as an orthodox central midfielder.
His performance in this position contributed to the Toffees' impressive comeback and led to Martinez again dropping his youngster back for phases of the game against Fulham.
Barkley playing in a deeper role today alongside Barry. Prob to utilise those surging runs. Will have to be disciplined so Barry not exposed— Greg O'Keeffe (@GregOK) December 14, 2013
Everton's manager recently commented on these stints in a deeper role, as The Liverpool Echo's Greg O'Keeffe reported.
Ross is just grabbing different challenges week by week. His understanding of the game is developing with every match.
It’s good that Ross can play in two different positions, and we have players in wide positions who can play in three different positions.
Here's a look at some of Barkley's key statistics to identify where his primary strengths lie.
|Long Pass Acc.||80%|
WhoScored.com and Squawka.com
Only Andros Townsend and Eden Hazard have dribbled past more opponents in the Premier League this season, so it's clear to see Barkley can run with the ball and surge past people. He also leads the league in fouls won.
Elsewhere, he's an extremely accurate passer, passing with 86 percent accuracy, which is especially impressive given his advanced position.
His longer passing also stands out with Leon Osman the only Everton player to marginally eclipse his 80 percent accuracy. Away from the numbers, his spacial awareness and vision are also strong traits.
And that's outrageously good by Barkley. Run, shimmy, dribble & pass. Denied by what must have been a fractional offside flag on Jelavic.— David Prentice (@prenno) September 14, 2013
What suggests he may be more effective in a deeper role—where he's played in academy football—is that his play is not yet translating into enough end product. There's no point beating all these opponents if it doesn't lead to anything.
Barkley is accomplished shooting off both feet and has scored twice this season, which is decent enough, but he's yet to register a single assist and has created just 15 chances in 15 Premier League appearances.
That's a surprising return and needs to be doubled, at least, to match the likes of Juan Mata and Mesut Ozil who excel in his position. It questions what actually happens once Barkley beats a man.
It seems he's dancing around defenders and attracting extra attention but often failing to find teammates in the space his runs create. He's only delivered two accurate through balls and often resorts to shooting once he's past a man—he leads Everton in shots at goal this season.
In the brief occasions he's appeared in midfield, Barkley's shown the extra time allows him to look up and make better choices. He dissected Liverpool's defence with some precise passes and marauded forward from deep on a couple of energetic bursts.
A deeper role also allows him to become a bigger factor in the passing game, switching play with his accurate diagonals and keeping his side moving at a high tempo.
He's also tenacious enough to be an uncompromising presence off the ball, and he can still drive forward and take on opponents, especially if accompanied by a more defensively aware partner.
Barkley is still a long way away from being the finished product, which is exciting for Everton. His game will fluctuate, as with any youngster, and Martinez is sensible to keep him in this advanced role for now, occasionally dropping him back for experience.
While his game is still so explosive, he's likely to have a greater effect in the final third when on song. He also won't be as detrimental to the Toffees were he in central midfield while having a quieter day.
Where do you see Barkley's future?
As his game develops and becomes more consistent, Barkley has the tools to become a leading box-to-box midfielder. He has the footwork to move his side around at pace, the extra time allows him to pick the right passes, and he can be even more lethal when dribbling from deep.
The very top players have so many strengths they can be effective in several different roles. There's no reason why Barkley's vision and instincts won't improve over time and allow him to dominate games in attack, as well; he may even become Everton's best player in both positions.
However, in terms of consistency and production, central midfield holds the greater potential for Barkley's long-term future.