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Ross Barkley’s roller coaster ride from Everton prodigy to complete player at Chelsea

From overcoming a potentially career-ending injury as a teenager to turning into one of England’s hottest prospects as an Everton prodigy, to resurrecting his career at Chelsea and becoming an integral part of the team as a “complete” player, Barkley’s endured it all. He is finally starting to meet our high expectations after a tough first half-season, as the club’s change in management seems to have awoken the 24-year-old’s true potential. While any comparisons to a certain legendary predecessor in the Chelsea No.8 shirt are far too premature, Barkley’s brilliant start to the season and recent heroics against Manchester United and Burnley certainly warrant a look at the player’s journey in football thus far.

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Joining Everton in 2005 when he was merely 11 years old, local lad Ross Barkley used to take the bus to the Toffees’ academy and, as boys often do, dreamed of playing for his boyhood club. Six years later, thanks in part to an injury crisis, his dream came true. David Moyes’ Everton may have lost 1-0 to Queens Park Rangers on that August day in 2011, but a 17-year-old Barkley put in a dynamic and extremely mature performance, turning heads and illustrating just what he was capable of doing.

What made the situation even more remarkable was that the midfielder’s career had been hanging by a thread only a year before, when he broke his leg in two places in an England Under-19s European qualifier. The doctors had indicated that Barkley’s time as a footballer could over, but the tenacious youngster simply didn’t accept throwing in the towel and fought back to full fitness.

Despite his promising debut, Ross didn’t receive many chances at Everton for the next two years. A mere 560 minutes in all competitions led to two short loan spells in the Championship, at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United, in 2012-13. Barkley impressed when given a chance, but in a situation all too familiar, chances were hard to come by. He made just 17 appearances (1378 minutes) across the two half-season loans, scoring four goals.

Stoke City v Everton - Premier League Photo by Paul Thomas/Getty Images

After getting recalled early, things started to improve. Five appearances in Everton’s final eleven games promised great things to come for the following season. The summer arrival of new manager Roberto Martinez, replacing the Manchester United-bound David Moyes, turned out to be the perfect catalyst for doing just that.

In that breakout season of 2013-14, at just 19 years of age, Barkley featured in 38 games (2617 minutes) in all competitions, contributing directly with seven goals and three assists, and, most impressively, leading Everton into Europe for the first time in five seasons.

His fantastic and promising performances lead to heaps of praise from all-around football, and Everton fans were hoping that they had just gained their very own Steven Gerrard, to match their rivals Liverpool. Incidentally, Gerrard once advised Barkley to never leave his boyhood club; advice that Barkley ultimately didn’t heed as it possibly slipped his mind.

“He told me I’m from Liverpool, a local lad playing for the team I support, and there is nothing better. He’s done that throughout his career. He said playing is the main thing, going to another team and not playing would be no good for my development.”

-Ross Barkley; source: Daily Mail

In addition to all the laurels, Barkley was rewarded with his first England cap, against Moldova by Roy Hodgson, in 2013 — he was also eligible to represent Nigeria through his grandfather — and even ended up receiving the honour of a spot in the World Cup squad that summer. Brazil 2014 was not a happy time for the Three Lions however, and two disappointing defeats and a draw led to an early elimination from the tournament. Barkley featured in all three group stage games and played reasonably well, managing to be one of the bright spots in an otherwise woeful England squad.

Unfortunately, England’s bad showing at the World Cup foreshadowed the start of a patchy spell for Barkley. An early injury and the added burden of European football led to a classic second-season drop in form for the young midfielder. His weaknesses were being exposed for the first time in his career. A knack for poor decision-making in the final third, as well as defensive frailties, made it hard for Ross to build on past performances.

Playing in 36 games (2481 minutes) and scoring just two goals, Barkley and Everton finished a disappointing eleventh in 2014-15. The Toffees were even reportedly contemplating a sale during the January transfer window in order to fund a much needed overhaul of their struggling squad. However, Chelsea’s current No.8 remained and, being the honest and down-to-earth person he is, never made any attempt to gloss over his poor displays.

“From my point of view I haven’t done as well as I know I can, but things like this happen. You have to go through bad days to get to the great days you have in your career.

“Everything’s a learning curve. We haven’t been going through the best period at the moment but we’re going to come through this and be really good at the end of it.

“I don’t feel pressure. I believe in myself and I know what I can do. It’s not me feeling pressure, it’s just me putting pressure on myself if I don’t do my best, and I know I can do better.”

-Ross Barkley; source: Telegraph

Everton v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

True to his word, Barkley came out with guns blazing for the 2015-16 season and once again began to show exactly why he was still being regarded as one of the nation’s most exciting and talented prospects. Roberto Martinez even hailed him as England’s “best footballer”, though we know that Bobby “Money Can’t Buy You Stones” Martinez has a penchant for overstating his case at times.

Bagging 12 goals and 13 assists in 47 games across all competitions was, and still is, Barkley’s most prolific season to date, demonstrating great strength, tenacity and a knack for scoring important goals in the process. Four of these assists even came against a then woeful Chelsea team stuck in the “Mourinho Season”, as Ross emphatically ran the show in a 3-1 Premier League and a 2-0 FA Cup win (two assist per match).

Barkley may have been in fine form throughout the season, but the European Championships in France that summer ended up a massive disappointment due to Roy Hodgson’s persistence in letting him rot on the bench, despite a comically bad England team that was crying out for someone of his quality. Ross once again decided to concentrate on drawing positives from a bad situation and saw it as a chance to give him even greater motivation.

“‘I’d played a lot in the qualifiers, scored as many as the midfielders there at the time, and was devastated I didn’t get any game time. I was working my hardest - doing double sessions - but wasn’t playing. I felt I wasn’t important to the squad and that’s not a nice feeling. I’d never like to be in that position again.

“I’m going to use what happened in the summer to kick me on this season to get to the next level which I believe I’ll get to.”

-Ross Barkley; source: Daily Mail

With Ronald Koeman succeeding Roberto Martinez for the 2016-17 season, Barkley lost an ardent advocate who had continually encouraged and stood by the youngster. Martinez may have been a lousy tactician, but there were never any problems between him and Ross. Koeman, on the other hand, didn’t seem to get along from the get-go. The new coach’s decision to drop the fan favourite for the first time in 55 games and label it a “wake up call” certainly didn’t help. Six goals and nine assists in 39 games (3150 minutes) pointed towards Barkley having taken a step backwards rather than reaching the “next level”.

Continuing to show flashes of brilliance simply wasn’t enough, and his inability to perform well on a consistent basis was hindering him from fulfilling his full potential. Ross of course had himself to blame as well, but Everton’s often completely inept management contributed largely as well. During Barkley’s time up north, none of Moyes, Martinez or Koeman seemed entirely sure in which position to play him. Several attempts at making him play on the wings turned out to be largely unsuccessful. Koeman’s stubbornness in insisting on Barkley playing on the right wing especially had a “square pegs in a round hole” feeling to it. And that eventually led to Barkley deciding to look for a new challenge.

After Chelsea’s initial attempts to lure him to Stamford Bridge ended in a most peculiar and confusing of ways, six months later, in January 2018, Chelsea director Marina Granovskaia was able to seal the deal at a steep discount, for just £15m. Barkley had called off the summer transfer at the last hour, preferring to recover from his torn hamstring in familiar surroundings instead of a completely unknown environment, though that cost his old club at least £20m in transfer fees. Needless to say, they were not happy, and even the Mayor of Liverpool got involved!

Still, given Barkley’s injury issues at the time, the transfer was not without risk and there was every chance it would become just another Marko Marin situation.

Arsenal v Chelsea - Carabao Cup Semi-Final: Second Leg Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

The reactions among Chelsea fans to Barkley’s arrival were rather mixed as well. Many perceived him as a failed prospect and worried that he’d only act as a road block to Academy players like Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mason Mount. Others saw him as no more than a cut-price bargain who was a lame attempt to placate Antonio Conte and was too injury prone to come good anyway. As angry as the Evertonians were, the transfer was by no means guaranteed to become a great success, and many were more than happy to predict failure.

The rest of Conte’s reign at Chelsea did not assuage any of these thoughts, quite the opposite in fact. Barkley made just four appearances (208 minutes) of varying but generally poor quality. His injury hell was not completely over, and his lack of match fitness was all too obvious. He was rarely able to show why he was once regarded as one of the hottest prospects in English football. Stories such as the player arousing the wrath of an already angry and under pressure Conte naturally didn’t help in changing the situation and calls for a premature end to the relationship between Chelsea and Barkley weren’t uncommon.

Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing and those initial reactions can be understandable. All the facts pointed towards the player turning out to be yet another failure in the market. Chelsea certainly had plenty of those in recent transfer windows! Thankfully, Ross is a born fighter and, as was the case when the doctors told him he’d never kick a ball again, he wasn’t prepared to give up on his dream of reaching the very top.

Maurizio Sarri’s appointment as Chelsea manager hasn’t only presented Barkley with a fresh start and the sort of belief he arguably never had during his time at Everton, but it has also forced us to readjust our perspective and expectations of Chelsea’s No.8. We’re no longer dealing with a player who may potentially come good, Barkley’s genuinely become the real deal.

Given the fact that he missed basically the whole previous season with injury, his omission from England’s World Cup squad in Russia was not only unsurprising, but it proved to be a blessing in disguise. He was able to be there from day one of Sarri-ball, and has been able to absorb all of the new manager’s philosophy from the very beginning. Multiple stories of Barkley being the hardest worker at Chelsea training emerged during that time, and many have recognized him as being in the best physical condition of his life. Summertime aspirations of emulating Frank Lampard in scoring 20 goals a season may have seemed overambitious at the time, but this dream doesn’t feel far-fetched anymore. On the contrary, one feels inclined to believe that Ross will only get better and better and scoring goals from midfield — a rare sight in Chelsea Blue since Lampard’s departure — will become a frequent occurrence.

“I would say Sarri’s philosophy has helped me a lot because over the years I haven’t been coached much and I am at an age now where I understand football a lot more. I know how important it is to take different tactics from different managers on board. I feel like I am ready to understand every aspect of the game.

“I believe that, if I did have that type of approach from a coach when I was younger, then maybe I would have improved a lot more. Where I am right now is where I believe I should be.”

-Ross Barkley; source: Guardian

With this new philosophy and Sarri’s excellent man management skills boosting his confidence, Ross has been in imperious form this season, featuring in each and every game with the exception of the home fixtures against Bournemouth, BATE Borisov, and Derby County in the League Cup. (But he was on the bench for those, too, ready to make a difference like against Manchester United, when he scored the last-minute equalizer.) In fact, with 3 goals and 3 assists in 3 Premier League games in October, he was rightly nominated for October’s Premier League Player of the Month.

The midfielder’s brilliant performances have also earned him an England recall, playing in both games for his county after a nearly two-year absence during the October international break. After providing the vital pass to set up Raheem Sterling’s goal against a strong Spanish side, some have even began to hail him as England’s best midfielder right now.

Maurizio Sarri wasn’t too far behind in his praise either, calling him a “complete” player after Chelsea’s 4-0 win over Burnley last weekend, wherein he accounted for a goal and two assists.

“He’s doing very well in this period. He’s improved in the defensive phase and he has improved his physical condition because the last season for him was very difficult with a very serious injury. He stopped the activity for six months. Now he’s improving the physical condition. He’s a very good player from a technical point of view. He’s improved the defensive phase. Now I think Ross is complete.”

-Maurizio Sarri; source: Football.London

So, has Barkley really become a “complete” player?

Barkley has endured crushing injuries, disheartening blows, the weight of expectations, and continuous harsh criticisms throughout his young, yet already eventful career, but has managed to retain a never-surrender attitude, always picking himself up and drawing the positives out of a bad situation to improve himself. But in addition to that, whether it’s simply due to him simply maturing or the encouragement of a coach like Sarri, or a bit of both, the inconsistent, sometimes hotheaded Ross Barkley we knew during the past five seasons looks to have gone for good. This new version has put in great effort to improve himself, both on and off the pitch, and he seems to have found the path to consistency. He is finally starting to fulfill his full potential as one of the top prodigies in English football.

Powerful runs, strength and tenacity in his defensive duties, an eye for the killer pass and a lethal sniff for scoring crucial goals, Ross Barkley has it all. He may not reach the level and status of the man who made Chelsea’s No.8 shirt famous, but if he’s able to achieve even half of what Lampard did at Chelsea Football Club, then we’ve got ourselves an absolutely phenomenal player.

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