Three years ago Ross Barkley was on the shortlist for the PFA Young Player of the Year award. Of those 2014 nominees, only the subsequent winner Eden Hazard has raised his game to the high level predicted – and is now growing to be a great.
Much, much more was expected of Barkley, Luke Shaw, Daniel Sturridge, Aaron Ramsey and Raheem Sterling. They have somewhat regressed rather than progressed, burdened by massive price tags, injuries and the demands placed, particularly, on young English or British players.
As Barkley drove forward fearlessly with finesse and flamboyance in assured midfield displays, former Everton manager Roberto Martinez claimed he was a mix of Paul Gascoigne and Michael Ballack, while Frank Lampard lauded him as a young Wayne Rooney. There was a buzz about Barkley for club and country.
Fast forward three years and the 23-year-old’s future is uncertain. Given a deadline of Sunday’s final Premier League game to commit to a new contract – as his current one ends next summer – or be sold, Barkley has not signed. Nor does he look he will, barring a late change of heart or more financial incentive.
With striker Romelu Lukaku also rejecting a new deal amid interest from several suitors, boss Ronald Koeman is already looking at replacements.
The signs are that Barkley will end his 12-year association at his hometown club and it looks best for a career that has stagnated rather than soared as he has endured difficulties on and off the pitch.
The Champions League is seemingly the target of his ambitions and understandably so, but right now it is difficult to see him being a starter for any of the English qualifiers, or prospective, in next season’s competition.
Criticised for his inconsistency and being too individualistic, some frustrated Everton followers feel he shouldn’t even be a first-choice for them and he won’t be missed.
Tottenham have been linked more than most, but is he on a par with Dele Alli? A resounding no. And with Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele, it is a midfield where Barkley could struggle to command regular action – apart from off the bench.
Over at champions Chelsea, Willian and Cesc Fabregas can’t even get into their first XI and Antonio Conte’s system may not be suited to his style, while rivals Liverpool will be a no-go.
He is not better than David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne who play in similar attacking midfield roles for Manchester City, nor Paul Pogba at United.
If he is looking at the best place to get starts and come up against Europe’s elite in the future then Arsenal – Everton’s opponents on the final day of the season – appear the best option.
Increasingly convinced Ronald Koeman would not bat an eyelid or lose a single second of sleep if he had to sell Ross Barkley.— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) May 11, 2017
Even more so if Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez depart the Emirates as Barkley may be afforded the forward roaming role that allows him to be creative rather then constrained.
What seems clear is that he needs a fresh start and a show of faith from his managers as he is in danger of becoming another youngster who was over-hyped and ended up disappointingly ordinary. Take Francis Jeffers and Theo Walcott, both Gunners, as prime examples of under-achievement.
Even Jake Livermore, James Ward-Prowse and the injury-hit Jack Wilshere have played ahead of Barkley for England recently and he faces a fight to make the squad for the 2018 World Cup finals.
Rather than accept being a reserve, maybe Barkley needs to reinvent himself to rise again.
Fans love the schoolyard mentality of trying to dribble past everyone, showing off tricks or shooting from outrageous distances, but few are actually able to pull it off.
If Barkley can become more disciplined, intelligent, in his play, he could well thrive as a deep-lying playmaker, possessing a good range of passing and energy to orchestrate attacks – a type the top clubs always want in the modern game.
He is not worth the £40-50 million that Everton reportedly want, but if he addresses areas where he can improve – just like Sterling has done at City under Pep Guardiola – then there is still time for him to flourish rather than flounder.