While watching Chelsea versus Burnley, I found myself fairly deep into things with Ross Barkley in midfield ... and enjoying the experience. I know!
Gone were the traditional pangs of discomfort watching an attack that was in some measure reliant on Barkley. It was weird, but the joy of Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi toying with Burnley players up and down the right flank made it easy to forget to dissect why — until Friend of the Blog Ashwin Raman noted something on Twitter.
Barkley has been very good today, playing in the deeper role I've always wanted him to play. Progressed the ball forward a lot, keeps the tempo going in midfield, evades the press well, and his conservatism doesn't matter anymore because he's not playing further forward.— Ashwin Raman (@AshwinRaman_) January 11, 2020
That was it. Frank Lampard had asked Ross Barkley to be Mateo Kovačić.
Kovačić’s dribbling technique and acceleration make him a prototypical press-resistant midfielder, as he has the ability to wriggle by or through pressing players and burst into space to progress the ball. Lampard identifying this early on was crucial in Chelsea’s 433 working more fluidly than Sarri’s. Against Burnley he set out to see if Ross Barkley’s similar dribbling prowess and acceleration could allow him to do a passing impression.
Barkley’s last starts in the Premier League came some months ago: an October matchup with Newcastle (in which he was subbed off injured after 43 minutes) and a late September meeting with Brighton (subbed off at ‘68). In both matches Barkley played in an identical midfield as the Burnley setup: Jorginho central and Mason Mount at left-mid.
Both matches were wins (Newcastle 0-1; Brighton 0-2), but not without a bit of stress, as the first goals didn’t arrive until the second halves. Against Burnley things were quite a bit different, and after the match I trotted over to WhoScored to do some comparisons.
I’ll admit, the best use for heat maps is to snort ones produced by N’Golo Kanté in place of any hard drugs. But here they highlight the difference in Barkley’s approach. Against Newcastle and Brighton, Barkley spent most of his time floating around and dipping into the top of the final third. Versus Burnley he was held back. In fact, outside of some space-filling runs on the right side when James and Hudson-Odoi would work the ball deep, it looks like Lampard flipped a switch on a force field around the attacking third to keep Ross away.
Barkley instead spent more time in the middle third, closer to Jorginho. It seemed his job was to be an outlet to receive the ball from Jorginho or a defender, then progress it with a simple pass or, if necessary, by beating a player with his dribble and chewing up the ground in behind. You might call it the Mateo Kovačić role, if you were to write this piece and drive home a point.
And Barkley did just that. He had an identical number of touches as the Brighton match (65) even though he was subbed in the 68th minute against the Seagulls, and played all 90 versus Burnley. The attack didn’t rely on him attempting to find that final ball, so instead he played a composed game and shuttled the ball on when called to do so.
His passes were also much more varied across the pitch, which suggests he was doing a good job of finding the place to be an outlet and making the right decision to move the ball forward from there.
The result of all of this was a rare composed match from the 26-year-old midfielder — so composed that he didn’t lose possession once (which WhoScored defines as ‘loss of possession due to a mistake/poor control’). In his other role he made such gaffes quite frequently — 4 times in 43 minutes versus Newcastle, and 8 times in 68 minutes against Brighton. This means that Ross Barkley started a Premier League match, played all 90+ minutes, and without any of the prototypical Barkleying that we’re used to. Please do read that again. Not once!
Of course now it’s time to release all of the Burnley-centric caveats — Burnley are Burnley, and they were missing key players vital to full Burnley-ing, including human wrecking ball Ashley Barnes. A marginal offside also wiped a supremely Burnley-riffic goal off the scoreboard. Still, Barkley’s performance is worth noting due to how it differed from his previous incarnations, both in idea and in execution.
If this is something Barkley can replicate, even if only against the Burnleys of the Premier League, it gives Lampard a way to keep Chelsea in our best formation (4-3-3) without having to significantly tweak the responsibilities of other players. This isn’t to say that I am now a Barkley Believer (ed.note: to join, please DM @carIisIe) or that he is now — finally and for real this time maybe! — on his way to fulfilling his “potential,” but it is at the very least interesting; and if it can continue, quite useful.
Ross Barkley’s ankle injury and subsequent shirtless traipsing around clubs and arguing with cab drivers (not necessarily in that order) confined him to Lampard’s naughty bin for months. A lot of Chelsea fans — and I count myself among them — would’ve been fine if he’d remained there until we accepted a ‘£30m OBO’ bid from Crystal Palace in the summer. But give Frank Lampard credit for folding him back into the team and coming up with a better use of his talents.
Lampard played during Barkley’s most hyped years, then retired, got into coaching, became Barkley’s coach, used him as an attacking midfielder, saw it still didn’t work, then unveiled him in a role that’s massively important in modern football — one that Barkley had never played before.