Ross Barkley endured a season to forget last year but he is blossoming under Maurizio Sarri. What is behind his resurgence?
Ross Barkley was only a few weeks into his Chelsea career when he found himself on the receiving end of a public humiliation by Antonio Conte. The 24-year-old had just performed poorly in his first appearance for the club against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, with Conte taking exception to how long it had taken him to get ready following a first-half injury to Willian.
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“It is not simple,” said the Italian in his post-match press conference, “especially when on the bench the only substitute is Ross Barkley.”
Perhaps Conte’s comments were lost in translation – perhaps he did not intend them to sound as harsh as they did – but they certainly set the tone for Barkley’s first few months at Chelsea. The midfielder, who had not played all season having suffered a serious hamstring injury at Everton, only made three further appearances before the end of the campaign.
Barkley’s hopes of a late push for England’s World Cup squad evaporated and his Chelsea future became uncertain, but 10 months on from that disappointing evening at the Emirates, his career is transformed. Barkley forced his way into Maurizio Sarri’s plans after an impressive pre-season campaign with Chelsea, and he has returned to the England team, too.
Barkley made his first international start in two years against Croatia and kept his place in Gareth Southgate’s team for the 3-2 win over Spain, and back at Chelsea there have been goals and assists against Southampton, Manchester United and now Burnley.
His performance in Sunday’s 4-0 win at Turf Moor was his most effective yet. Barkley set up Alvaro Morata’s opener with a cute through ball, then fired home the second goal himself with a precise shot from long range. Barkley added his second assist of the game for Willian’s strike and ended the game with the man-of-the-match award.
Barkley has now contributed three goals and three assists in just 391 minutes of Premier League action. It is already shaping up to be the most productive season of his career, but Barkley has always had the guile to create chances and score goals. It’s the improvement of other areas of his game which most strongly suggests that he could finally fulfil his potential.
Sarri has pinpointed his “physical condition” as one of the biggest factors behind his improvement. Barkley has not always been known for his work ethic, but it was notable he ran just shy of 12km against Burnley – the same distance as the indefatigable N’Golo Kante. On average, he is covering a kilometre and a half more per 90 minutes than he did at Everton.
“He’s fitter, stronger and maybe that is something to do with what we are seeing now at Chelsea,” said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football this week.
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“I have done everything I could perfectly,” Barkley explained back in July. “I felt strong towards the end of the season and then, in the off-season, worked hard with the strength and conditioning coach. I got myself really fit just to give myself a head start. I am really prepared and I feel at home with the team now.”
Barkley’s extra work is paying off but his progress is down to mindset as well as fitness. Earlier this season, Sarri said Barkley could become a “complete” player if he improved defensively and tactically, and recent evidence suggests he has. Barkley is still driving into the box when opportunity allows, but he is also showing positional discipline off the ball.
“He has improved the defensive phase,” said Sarri on Sunday. “Now I think Ross is complete.”
Crucially, Barkley has improved his decision-making, too. It is only 18 months since Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness described him as a “kid in the playground” after a poor display for Everton in a Merseyside derby defeat at Anfield. “He runs with it when he should pass it, he passes it when he should run with it,” he added. “His decision-making is poor in the extreme.”
But Barkley appears to be maturing. He created four scoring chances against Burnley – more than any other player on the pitch – but what is most impressive is that he did it while barely wasting a pass. Over the course of the 90 minutes, he completed 91 passes out of 96.
It was not the first time this season his efficiency in possession has stood out. After nine games of the campaign, he has completed a higher percentage of his passes than Jorginho. His 92 per cent accuracy rate is a considerable improvement on previous seasons and places him among the top five players in the Premier League this season.
Barkley is resisting the urge to embark on risky dribbles, too. Across his six seasons at Everton, he attempted five per 90 minutes, but under Sarri that number has dropped to just 1.4. Barkley’s impulsiveness held him back in the past, but he is choosing his moments now and it’s easy to see why he is keeping Mateo Kovacic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek out of the team.
“I’ve matured,” he said recently. “I understand the game much more, which can be natural as you grow up. I’m 24 now and I understand the game. I am at a big club now with a lot of expectation and fantastic players around me, and my performances are showing it.”
The challenge for Barkley now is to sustain his recent improvement, but he has already left that miserable evening at the Emirates Stadium behind him. Barkley is maturing at Chelsea. Both club and player are feeling the benefits.
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