If it’s possible to have two breakout seasons inside four years, Ross Barkley has managed it. 2015-16 has been a season for him to remember so far on a personal level, and his performances for Everton have put him in the England picture ahead of this summer’s European Championships.
His six goals and seven assists from 23 starts in the Premier League this season paint a picture of production. It’s in stark contrast to the two goals and two assists he managed the year before from a very similar number of starts.
Both Everton and England require goalscoring midfielders to function, and Barkley is hard at work hashing out a strong reputation for himself in this area.
Everton manager Roberto Martinez’s praise must always be taken with a pinch of salt due to how regularly and how effusively it flows from him, but he's right to continually point out Barkley’s vast improvement this season.
He’s achieving and improving this season, taking gargantuan steps forward, amid a backdrop of discontent at Goodison Park. On Sunday, as Everton fell to a disappointing defeat to Swansea City at home, boos rung out at half-time and full-time, and sighs of bitterness and exasperation greeted every turnover of the ball.
The most audible of sighs were reserved for Barkley—despite him trying the very hardest of all his team-mates to turn things around, and despite John Stones and Tim Howard combining for a horrendous error to concede the first goal.
Why Barkley receives such treatment is difficult to say, though the fact he’s a local lad with a potentially huge future leads to unprecedented expectations.
Goodison Park has been on edge for around 18 months and will need no second invitation to huff and puff, and it seems Barkley draws the ire of the crowd more easily and more voraciously than anyone else bar Howard.
But it’s important to take stock at a time like this and assess how Barkley—just Barkley—sits at the moment. Yes, Everton are drastically underperforming and should not be so far adrift of the top four given the talent in their squad, but on an individual basis, this 22-year-old is remapping his own path to the top.
After breaking out in 2013-14, netting six goals from 25 league starts, he injured his medial collateral ligament and missed the first two-and-a-bit months of the 2014-15 campaign.
Much was expected of him ahead of the big kick-off, but Barkley never hit his stride and, genuinely, only racked up so many appearances because of outright Martinez favouritism. Every time Steven Naismith took to the pitch in his stead he outperformed him, but the Spaniard insisted upon playing Barkley back into form.
That never really happened, but it’s arguable it laid the groundwork for this year’s exploits. His six goals and seven assists so far make for 13 total direct involvements in goals, giving him a better than one-in-two ratio when it comes to production.
He’s also managing this from what is, at times, a slightly deeper role. Martinez’s Everton have usually looked to utilise Barkley as a driving No. 10, unlocking both his physical and technical best in tandem, but in the last few months he’s bordered on a No. 8 role, playing closer to Gareth Barry and dropping into the midfield line.
No goal illustrates what he can offer from a slightly deeper position than the one scored midweek against Manchester City. Receiving the ball from Leon Osman deep inside City’s half, he turns, powers forward, tricks Nicolas Otamendi into going to ground, surges into the space and whips a 22-yard finish into the bottom corner.
His best moments in recent weeks have tended to come from deeper positions; when he can surge into space and use his physical tools to his advantage, he truly is at his most dangerous.
His distribution is a little off at times, and he’s probably 20 percent greedier than he should be—sometimes he doesn’t see the required pass, sometimes he outright ignores it—but that maturation of game comes over time. He won’t be perfect immediately.
Playing as a No. 10, Barkley gets to use his power and speed far less often. If Everton dominate a game and he plays a between-the-lines role, it quashes his physical traits and, admittedly, brings out some of the decision-making weaknesses in his game. To play as an athletic No. 10 you have to be in a side that sees little of the ball like Malaga or Watford, not Everton.
Barkley’s re-emergence not just as a player and goalscorer, but as someone who might just be best-suited to the No. 8 role, comes at a very delicate time for Roy Hodgson. It is probably fair to say he doesn’t know what his best XI is and that the team for the European Championships is far from sorted, and Barkley is one of two very intriguing prospects bustling into form.
If there’s anyone who can outshine the powerful narrative of Dele Alli, it’s Everton’s No. 20. There’s a pretty serious chance one midfield spot is open to interpretation, and Barkley has positioned himself brilliantly to lay a claim to it.
If fitness permits, Hodgson will play Jack Wilshere as a deep-lying midfielder in a 4-3-3-esque shape. Hodgson and Gary Neville have asked him to watch videos of Andrea Pirlo to learn how to dictate the game from deep, and whenever the Arsenal man has been healthy, he’s played.
The second spot, just ahead of Wilshere, is almost certainly going to Jordan Henderson. He is a leader, the club captain of Liverpool, and possesses the box-to-box burst needed for the formation. It doesn’t feel likely that Michael Carrick now 34, will work his way in, though Eric Dier could throw a spanner in the works if his form in the anchor role at Tottenham Hotspur continues.
That leaves one slightly more attacking berth, with license to break into the No. 10 space and push between the lines. He who plays there must be a goalscoring threat, work hard to track runners and feel comfortable flattening out off the ball. That is Barkley in a nutshell in 2015; it wasn’t in 2014, but it is this year.
The improvements to his game—both from a tactical and production standpoint—make him not only a contender for a seat on the plane, but a contender for a spot in the XI. Unless Jonjo Shelvey reinvents the wheel in Newcastle, he’s out of contention, and that leaves Fabian Delph as the only other Hodgson-inspired option.
Despite the doom and gloom at Goodison, and the groans that greet Barkley’s odd rogue touch, he’s been one of Everton’s standout players this season and is rapidly improving every facet of his game.
Alli is spoken of in wild-card terms when it comes to England’s Euro 2016 planning, but Barkley may yet steal the title.
All statistics from WhoScored.com