Why this is a defining year for Ross Barkley
Ross Barkley's £15 million move from Everton to Chelsea, last January, was hailed as remarkable value for a midfielder with boundless potential. So remarkable, Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson thought it bordered on the criminal and encouraged an investigation. A real crime may occur if Barkley fails to seize the initiative at Stamford Bridge this year.
At 24, Barkley is hardly old. His career arc hasn't featured the ascendancy expected, however. While it's often difficult to cut through media and fan hype, Barkley's promise was not the exaggerated invention generated by excited fans or garrulous pundits. Expectations weighed heavily on his shoulders. For various reasons, his development stalled under Ronald Koeman just when it should have accelerated.
Injuries didn’t help. An original move to London broke down precisely because he did. Chelsea escaped a £40 million deal to snap him up for a fraction thereof four months later.
Barkley wasn't Antonio Conte’s signing, though. The less said about Chelsea politics the better, but the new acquisition clearly wouldn't be given ample playing time even after he recovered from injury.
It's churlish to say these are excuses, that Barkley bears full responsibility for his progression. There are fair arguments to be heard: his tetchy relationship with Koeman and his apathetic matter, but both came of unkind circumstance. Now, there's no leeway for failure.
Benefitting from a full pre-season, Barkley enters the campaign playing regularly under Maurizio Sarri. Starting the Community Shield against Manchester City was a promising sign even though he couldn't escape an obvious narrative. Phil Foden, City’s young star, won plaudits for his mature display. Once that was Barkley's role. Now he's the cautionary tale. This season is last-chance saloon.
In fairness to Barkley, he’s done his research.
"I've watched clips [of Napoli] just to see the way they played, out of possession and in possession. I've seen how they played last season, against Manchester City last season in the Champions League, a really exciting team, one-twos all over the pitch, one and two-touch football.”
He faces a battle before he can contemplate tackling the war of current perception. Chelsea’s £60 million signing, Jorginho, anchors the midfield alongside N’Golo Kante. In Sarri’s favoured 4-3-3, that leaves a fight between Barkley, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Cesc Fabregas, Danny Drinkwater and new addition Mateo Kovacic for the remaining midfield spot.
Barkley begins the season in the first team. It's up to him alone to retain his shirt. This is a defining year for Chelsea’s no.8. Fail to confront the challenge that lies ahead; his star could fade altogether. Sarri believes Barkley could be a “very useful player,” but that isn’t enough for someone formerly tipped to lead England. He knows this. Barkley must be great. He must satisfy the churlish by taking control of his destiny.
At his very best, Barkley is a dynamic, powerful threat, able to dovetail surging runs with delicate touches. For too long, those insurgent moments have been mere flashes. By muscling his way into Sarri's starting eleven, Barkley can realise his enormous qualities. Fail to meet the Italian's demands; he'll miss his chance to become the player everyone envisions.