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Can Chelsea turn rough diamond Ross Barkley into the finished article?

Chelsea’s £15m signing has flown under the radar a bit, but could yet prove a smart acquisition.

Chelsea Unveil New Signing Ross Barkley Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

There hasn’t been a January transfer window quite so memorable since Chelsea splashed £50 million on Fernando Torres in 2011. In relative terms, that was an extraordinary sum of money, which, to the glee of many, had the perverse effect of sending the once prolific striker into terminal decline.

Fast forward seven years and we bear witness to a window dominated by the oft incongruous Sanchez saga. In a spectacular volte-face, Manchester City, those former bastions of fiscal extravagance and a club propped up by a state with a questionable human rights record, turned their back on financial immoderation and instead attempted to reinvent themselves as football’s guardians of restraint and decency. We may well have spent £130 million on three wing-backs, but one of the Premier League’s leading lights for a quarter of that? No thanks. The irony of City baulking at Sanchez’ asking price for financial reasons will not be lost on many.

Amusingly, Sanchez ended up on the red side of Manchester for no fee whatsoever, and, in true homage to the “football’s gone” movement, the multi-talented forward announced his arrival with a pianistic rendition of “Glory Glory Man United”. Who are the noisy neighbours now? What’s more, Mikhitaryan went the other way in a very timely and reassuring reminder that the old-fashioned swap deal isn’t dead.

As if that wasn’t enough, Chelsea injected more life and humour into the window with their relentless pursuit of a preferably English homegrown and not-very-good target man. The prime target, so to speak, was Andy Carroll, but the search was also widened to include 1-goal-in-18 hitman Christian Benteke, and it reached its apogee with stories linking Peter Crouch to his boyhood club. Rumour has it that Ali Dia continues to wait expectantly by the phone.

All of which is a roundabout way of getting to a transfer that, given the circus occurring elsewhere, somewhat slipped under the radar this month. Other than the Mayor of Liverpool channelling his 15-year-old self, as opposed to his elected representative of the people self, and reporting the transfer to the police on account of fraud, Ross Barkley joined Chelsea in a £15m deal with little fanfare.

Brighton and Hove Albion v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

From a pure business perspective, the switch makes perfect sense. With Roman’s roubles drying up in preparation for the £1bn regeneration of Stamford Bridge, not to mention the general gone-wild state of the transfer market, Chelsea’s current focus is on procuring young talent, tying them to long-term contracts and immediately seeing their sell-on value increase. There are, of course, some risks involved. Barkley is yet to play a competitive game this season due to a serious hamstring problem, and he struggled for form last season under the volatile stewardship of Ronald Koeman. It also could have a serious negative effect on Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s not quite fledgling Chelsea career. In some ways, then, it is a risk, but certainly a calculated one. Acquiring a 24-year old England international on the eve of his prime for a relative snip at £15m is undoubtedly sensible business.

But business reasons rarely hold sway with paying punters, and there is an element of scepticism about what Barkley can really offer to his new club. As of yet, his career-path has shades of the Wilshere, the Walcott and the Ox: initial promise quickly devolving in to unfulfilled potential. Barkley burst on to the scene in 2013-14, and quickly made waves as a regular starter at Goodison Park, earning himself a place at England’s ignominious 2014 World Cup campaign. Since then, hard evidence of tangible progression in the midfielder’s ability has been scarce and uncertain. Such unpredictability and inconsistency provides the intrigue to this transfer, the success of which depends entirely on which Ross Barkley the club end up getting.

Undeniably, Barkley has the talent to make it work. Anyone who has seen his solo 70-yard run and goal against Newcastle in the FA Cup in 2014 will know of a player who travels effortlessly with the ball, driving at defences with a threatening directness. Not since Lampard have Chelsea had an effective ball-carrying midfielder. Bakayoko has shown glimpses of it this season but he lacks the confidence to do it with any regularity.

Barkley similarly retains an eye for the incisive forward pass, the type to penetrate an opposition midfield and find teammates operating in between the lines. His career-average pass length currently stands at 17m, level with Paul Pogba and 2m ahead of Bakoyoko, whilst 56% of his passes have arrived at a forward’s feet. Theoretically, this is the type of service that Hazard, Morata, et al. would thrive off.

He is also extremely well regarded by those who know and play the game, which, with the exception of those “Proper Football Men”, does hold some weight as an indicator of his prodigious talent. Xavi, no-less, once declared that Barkley had the technical attributes to be a success at Barcelona, whilst Gary Lineker has often likened him to Gazza. Ray Hall, Barkley’s former Everton academy coach, recently told a story of how he asked Barkley to take four penalties in order to decipher which foot was his stronger. He took two with his left and two with his right and duly despatched all four.

And yet, we still have nothing concrete to reinforce this pedigree-by-reputation. In fact, a brief look at the midfielder’s Premier League statistics reveals an alarming lack of productivity, entirely at odds with much of the fanfare surrounding his burgeoning career.

In his 150 league appearances, Barkley has contributed just 21 goals, at an average of 0.14 per game, (roughly 1-in-7). By comparison, Dele Alli contributes 0.36 goals a game, (over 1-in-3). Coutinho, Eriksen and De Bruyne, meanwhile, all average 1-in-4. Those are all higher calibre players, admittedly, but Barkley’s numbers are also dwarfed by those considered to be his equals. Gylfi Sigurdsson’s league goals come at a rate of 1-in-4, whilst Adam Lallana operates at 1-in-5. Even Cesc Fabregas, far from famed for his goal-scoring exploits, boasts a better goals-per-game ratio, too.

A similar pattern emerges in terms of assists. The heavyweights like De Bruyne and Fabregas contribute approximately 1 every 2 and 1 every 3 matches, respectively, whilst Dele and Pogba come in at 1-in-4. Again, Barkley, at a rate of 0.12 per game (worse than 1-in-8), finds himself some distance behind both Sigurdsson and Lallana. In creating key chances, he is, once more, lightyears away from De Bruyne, Eriksen, Coutinho, Dele and Sigurdsson, instead producing a clear goal-scoring opportunity just once in every six games — the same rate as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. This hardly has the hallmarks of Gasgcoine 2.0.

Defensively, too, there seem to be more problems than answers. Less than 1 tackle per game is a paltry ratio, outstripped by Fabregas, Lallana, Coutinho and De Bruyne, none of whom are obvious candidates for the league’s most combative midfielder. By way of interceptions, moreover, Barkley also finds himself behind this select list of contemporaries. Perhaps this could be attributed to the fact that Barkley has not yet had the luxury of being part of a side who play consistently on the front foot, and press high up the pitch. Yet Sigurdsson, his ex-Everton teammate and formerly of lowly Swansea, is making one interception per game, which is twice that of Barkley.

The bluntness of these less than inspiring numbers simply do not square with the media reputation ascribed to him as an industrious, dynamic and inventive midfielder. If Barkley is to make a success of himself at Stamford Bridge, he needs to offer much more in every department.

In fairness, much like Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and, to a lesser extent, Wilshere, it is refreshing to see Barkley break free from his comfort zone at Everton, and attempt to rediscover his form and promise in new surroundings. Cynics will argue that he is simply chasing a pay check, but, in a World Cup year, it may hold the key to him resurrecting an international career.

Whilst the emergence of Kane, Dele, and Sterling has somewhat allayed fears within the national set-up as to a developing trend of stagnating English talent, the fact that they arrived at Barkley’s expense must grate on a man who had similar prospects not long ago. The instrumental role that all three play for both club and country should provide the impetus he needs to prevent a bright career from escaping him.

Only time will tell whether Chelsea can turn this diamond in the rough into the finished article many have been long waiting for. The move to Chelsea may yet provide the salvation Barkley needs to ensure he does not end up discarded on the dung-heap on mediocrity like so many others before him.

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