Will 2019/20 be the season of Barkley at Chelsea?
Background image: Russell Trebor, CC BY-SA 2.0
It's been a year-and-a-half since Ross Barkley switched Merseyside for west London. Life at Stamford Bridge is an improvement on Goodison Park but only from poor to average. The 25-year-old hasn't quite hit the mark. Not yet but, with a new dawn at the club, he won't get a better chance to prove his worth.
Following a couple of loan moves away from Goodison Park, the young Barkley returned, set to take the league by storm. In his first season as a regular, he scored six goals from midfield. At 20, he played with a zest that recalled Wayne Rooney, always with his head up, looking for movement, confident with the ball at his feet, not afraid to let fly from range.
Then it all fell apart. He struggled to get playing time due to injuries and managerial choice. His attitude was called into question.
When Barkley moved to Chelsea in January of 2018 for £15 million, it looked like either a coup or wasted money. He was only 24 and inarguably talented. But the baggage.
Regardless, after Everton held out so long to sell him, the paltry fee seemed criminal. Bridges were burned on Merseyside, though. There was no going back.
Injuries travelled south with him. That, coupled with Antonio Conte's reluctance to field him when fit, restricted Barkley to four appearances in all competitions in his initial half-season with the Blues. Wasted money.
But Barkley's first full season with the Blues saw him battle it out with Mateo Kovacic for a place in Maurizio Sarri's preferred XI. With Jorginho and N'Golo Kante nailing down the other two midfield places, it was quite the battle. Sarri favoured starting Kovacic for league outings, Barkley the cup competitions. The Englishman made 14 of his 23 Premier League appearances from the bench, recording three goals and five assists. Rumours of a coup.
Eight direct goal contributions in 1,241 minutes [1:155] is better than average. Barkley ought to feel he can be much more than just a squad player. His task heading into the 2019/20 season was to prove it to the third manager in his 18 months at the club. So far, Frank Lampard appears to fancy him.
Barkley enjoyed a terrific preseason. In friendlies against Barcelona and Reading, he looked more like his younger self, always wanting to be on the ball, to make something happen. He isn't bad with free-kicks either. Reading goalkeeper Joao Virginia can testify.
There was never any doubt regarding his quality even though his career was unravelling with Everton.
Barkley recently spoke of how Lampard encourages him to play with greater freedom, to add more goals to his game. Is mutual respect and understanding developing between player and manager? Lampard may see a bit of himself in the younger Englishman. Barkley is one of those all-around midfielders who can play anywhere across midfield.
Notwithstanding, he is best utilised further up the pitch while also being given license to drop deep and win the ball. A freer role suits him nicely.
Lampard experimented with several formations in pre-season but will likely use the 4-2-3-1 formation when the campaign starts against Manchester United today.
Sarri mostly played Barkley on the left of a midfield trio last season. The No.10 role plays more to his strengths, as revealed in preseason. Nailing down the spot won't be easy with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mason Mount also in the hunt. Even so, if he carries his form into the season, Barkley can make the spot his own.
It's not exactly make or break this season but there can be no excuse for failing to deliver the goods. The 'potential' label doesn't age well on players. At 25, it's beginning to turn on the gifted midfielder. Time runs out to live up to his billing. The stage is set. Ross Barkley must take it.