When Chelsea announced the loan signing of Matéo Kovačić from Real Madrid in August, there were concerns raised over whether the Croatian’s arrival would come at the expense of one of the most gifted English midfielders of the current generation missing out.
Those who were concerned that Ruben Loftus-Cheek would fall victim to the Blues’ midfield competition for places have subsequently been proven right, with the 22-year-old having featured in just 33 minutes of Premier League action so far this season.
Few had any issue with Ross Barkley, a January signing from Everton last season, losing out, though. It seemed the 24-year-old midfielder, once tipped as England’s brightest emerging talent, had already been written off to a certain extent, deemed a serviceable squad player but falling short of the requisite quality to start of a team harbouring title ambitions.
But Barkley has been involved in eight of Chelsea’s nine league games so far in 2018/19, starting three times and with two goals and two assists already to his name. Under new Blues boss Maurizio Sarri, the Liverpool-born playmaker is finally beginning to deliver on the promise of his early career. And it’s all down to the role the Italian tactician has carved out for him.
At Everton, Barkley burst on to the scene as a fearless and insouciant teenager, all dynamism, improvisational skill and unpredictability. But during his four full seasons in the Goodison Park first team, he played predominantly as a No.10 and was even deployed on the flanks semi-regularly.
At the time, it seemed an obvious fit to put the gifted-yet-raw youngster high up the pitch in positions where his offensive skillset could be utilised without his still-developing positional and tactical understanding costing the team at the breakdown of play.
As the seasons passed, though, it became apparent Barkley was perhaps not best suited to such roles. As a No.10, he lacks the subtlety and reliable needle-threading powers of, say, a Mesut Özil. The former Everton man can certainly do a job in the position but it is unlikely he will ever reach the very highest level there.
Likewise when stationed out wide, where he does not possess the lightning pace nor dribbling ability to provide proper width, and instead looks to cut inside, into areas where he is more comfortable, as often as possible.
What Sarri seems to have realised at Chelsea is that Barkley has several attributes which are better utilised in a slightly deeper remit. As a No.8 in a midfield three, the 24-year-old’s natural athleticism and strength become real assets, able to hold off challenges and cover ground. Meanwhile, he has the technical quality to link play effectively, connecting defence and attack.
And while Barkley’s creative skills may not match the game’s high-end No.10s, they surpass those of most in his new position. With intelligent movement ahead of him at Chelsea, Barkley is impressing with his ability to carve chances for colleagues, his average of 0.29 big chances created and 0.12 expected goals assisted per 90 minutes bettering positional rival Kovačić (zero and 0.08 respectably) so far this term.
The old attacking instincts remain intact, too, with Barkley twice a scorer in the Premier League already this term. As evidenced by his dramatic late equaliser against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in October, he is beginning to master the art of timing his arrival into the penalty area, and his ball-striking technique means he never requires much of an invitation to shoot and shoot accurately.
Barkley’s fine form has thrust him back into the international picture with England, too. During the most recent international break, he started both of the Three Lions’ UEFA Nations League fixtures, a key part of a credible draw away to Croatia and an even more impressive win over Spain in Seville – both times playing as a No.8 in a 4-3-3 system.
After years of stagnation, and just as his move to Chelsea was beginning to look like a step too far for the talented midfielder, Sarri has found the key to unlock Barkley’s vast potential.