Chelsea's Forgotten Man Ross Barkley Fighting to Prevent Another False Dawn
Barkley grabbed only his sixth league start with both hands, driving the blues forward and gaining admiration from his coach and fans alike. Though this sudden resurgence will be unlikely to dissuade doubts over Barkley's long-term form which has prevented him from becoming a cert in Chelsea's midfield.
Barkley's career at Chelsea has been defined by false dawns. Small glimpses of the talent that prospered at Goodison Park looked set to propel Barkley to the top of the English game. Though a series of injuries, setbacks, off-field disputes and a struggle for minutes all stalled that high ceiling.
It spoke volumes that when Barkley did make the jump from Everton to Chelsea – the fee was only £15.2m. For a 25-year-old in the modern market of extortionate fees, this was one of the best bargains in the January sale.
The most amount of noise made about Barkley's exit from Merseyside was a public meltdown by Liverpool's Mayor Joe Anderson. The Everton supporter wrote to the FA Chairman Greg Clarke and Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore screaming foul play. Anderson claimed Chelsea's latest signing was a criminal act worth prosecution – also passing on his complaint to Police in order to try and provoke an investigation over possible fraud. The bizarre moment of delusion prompted wide mockery from Chelsea fans online.
Under Conte, Barkley struggled for minutes as he tried to regain fitness in the second half of the 2017/18 season – making only four appearances due to an ongoing hamstring injury.
It was only after the arrival of Maurizio Sarri that those craved minutes for his new club would arrive. A dedicated fitness plan for pre-season had returned Barkley to peak physical condition and soon he was thriving in the heart of Chelsea's midfield. Scoring his first goal against Southampton, where he also assisted the Blues opener. A week later, Barkley would net a last-gasp equaliser at home to Manchester United, then would set up and score again at Burnley in a romping 4-0 victory.
Chelsea had craved a regular goal-scorer from midfield since Frank Lampard's departure and Barkley gave fans hope – wearing the iconic number eight on his back – he could provide the answer.
In truth, Barkley's form quickly dipped and he would spend the rest of the season battling for minutes with Mateo Kovacic – as the pair would swap bench duties game-by-game. Ruben Loftus-Cheek's emergence come the spring of 2019 put both behind in the pecking order as he looked like undroppable alongside N'Golo Kante and Jorginho.
Barkley made 48 appearances in 2018/19 – starting only 13 in 27 Premier League appearances. A highlight was a delightfully executed free-kick in the Europa League second leg at home to Malmo in February.
The ups and downs within Barkley's game have always been of concern and have kept him from ever nailing down a first team place. Against inferior opposition he can look influential, dynamic and a positive presence in Chelsea's attack. When squaring up against the likes of Manchester City, he can make daft decisions like heading the ball straight to Sergio Aguero.
Barkley looks best when he is working off instinct. Unlike his fellow midfielder partners in Jorginho and Kovacic, who have the suaveness and guile to create space and time to think about their next move, Barkley is much more erratic – which leaves him prone to more errors.
In a continuing tirade of criticism towards Maurizio Sarri, fans would point to Barkley's positive outputs for his country under Gareth Southgate and ask why he wasn't doing the same in Blue? Though a similar pattern would occur on international duty. Looking confident against the likes of Montenegro and Bulgaria but come June's Nations League semi-final against a talented Dutch side, Barkley would play a suicidal back pass to end England's hope of silverware.
There is a sense when observing Barkley on a football pitch you can see him thinking – but not in a good way. If he does 10 things in a game, five will be good and five will be bad.
Come the summer of last year and Barkley once again looked to make a positive impression.
Under Frank Lampard, central midfielders were of keen interest to see how the Blues new coach would mould and direct the centre of the park.
Barkley was Chelsea's star performer in pre-season – netting 4 goals and executing some delightful passes. Most notably was the game away to Red Bull Salzburg when Barkley floated a pinpoint diagonal from his own half into the path of Chrisitan Pulisic to double the lead. In the second half, his individual running helped create space for a chipped ball into the box for Pedro to score with an audacious flick.
The strong performances would be rewarded with a start at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season – but like before – all signs of progression came to a quick halt. In the opening weeks Lampard would rotate his midfield trio, sometimes shifting Mason Mount out to a wide left position to accommodate the likes of Barkley.
However, it soon became apparent both Kovacic and Jorginho would be essential cogs to Lampard's midfield with some stand out performances. Once again Barkley would watch on from the bench.
Disaster would strike in September when he infamously placed the ball on the spot in the opening Champions League game to Valencia and blasted over – resigning the Blues to a 1-0 defeat. This further put into question Barkley's hot-headed nature and ability to thrive under pressure. A Chelsea side injected with youth and vibrancy needed a sense of control in midfield; which Barkley couldn't offer.
His campaign has also become one tarred by off-field incidents.
In early October – three days before Chelsea's trip to Lille for the second Champions League group game – Barkley was filmed arguing with a taxi driver in Liverpool's city centre after a night out drinking. Reports claimed the taxi driver was annoyed at Barkley for spilling chips in his vehicle and the Chelsea player was refusing to pay for the mess caused. Police were called to the incident and Barkley was escorted to a cash machine.
Although Barkley travelled with the first team squad to France, he was left out with Lampard referring to the incident as naive.
"He hasn’t broken a club code being out 48 hours before a game. The lads were given a day off on Sunday. He hasn’t committed a crime other than eating chips in the back of a cab, which is probably a bit out of order for the cabbie, but on a serious note what he has done from my point of view is be naive to be out on that evening in the buildup to a Champions League game.
“He has admitted that. On a professional level, those are little things that shouldn’t happen. I like Ross. I have had absolutely no problem with him. He works hard and wants to do well. This morning he admitted to making a mistake. I will take that at face value and we move on.”
Lampard's calm and sympathetic demeanour in October was tested a month later when his midfielder was once again filmed, this time in a night club in Dubai during the November international break. Despite receiving permission by Lampard to travel, the antics of Barkley had clearly frustrated his coach further.
"Ross knows how I felt about the first headline. I backed him then and I still back him now but he showed a moment of a lack of professionalism as far as I'm concerned.
"It's not something that I want to be a pure dictator about and come down hard on, because I also understand all my players are humans and have lives and I don't think it's a terrible thing that he's done.
"I like Ross, he's certainly one of my players. He has had an injury, he's still kind of carrying an injury, there's a bit of pain on shooting so he just has to work his way back in, in terms of the fitness thing, and train well."
Professionalism and punctuality is something Lampard demands out of his players. Demonstrated when an extensive fines list was leaked in December showing a peak behind the curtain at Cobham.
This further prompted concerns over Barkley's mentality, which linked with his erratic and unreliable displays.
Barkley started Chelsea's FA Cup tie at home to Nottingham Forest, which would prove to be a fruitful day – scoring the second and generally playing well.
Lampard has demonstrated this season his belief in a meritocracy by fielding players based on performances, and it was proved once again by Barkley's inclusion against Burnley. The decision paid off as Barkley glided across the pitch with swagger and confidence, passing so crisply and adding a much needed injection of pace into Chelsea's game. Receiving the ball from wide areas and turning away from opponents into space, before accurately switching play out to the likes of Willian and Callum Hudson-Odoi.
A goal-line clearance in the first half kept Chelsea's lead intact, showing defensive awareness which would have been as pleasing to Lampard as his attacking work.
"I really like Ross and his character. He came to me a couple of weeks ago and he said to me that it is just starting to feel good." Lampard said following the victory last weekend.
"You saw his quality on the ball. He can hit right foot ball, left foot ball, take the ball well. He looked confident today. That’s part of Ross’ game that you could question from the outside is how confident is he when things go against him slightly.
"We know exactly what Ross can do. He is an England player, he is playing for Chelsea and deservedly so. He has given me a lot of thinking to do with that performance today."
It was a day Barkley had needed to let his football do the talking after months of his name being linked to off-field antics.
On Saturday evening away at Newcastle, Barkley has every chance to be included and for good reason. The question will be if he can be relied upon against the likes of Arsenal, Leicester, Manchester United and Tottenham?
The test for Ross Barkley will be if he can finally break the cycle of false dawns and start to rediscover some of that glittering form that made him one of hottest prospects in English football only a few years ago. If he can do that, Lampard may have a reliable cog in his midfield engine.