As Jack Grealish confirmed his status as England’s next hot young thing with a mesmeric display for Aston Villa under the Wembley arch and Harry Kane bagged his 30th goal of an extraordinary campaign with Tottenham Hotspur, Ross Barkley—last season’s in-vogue prospect—added another disappointing chapter to an auspicious season.
The Everton midfield seized the responsibility of penalty duties for his team against Burnley, but had his kick saved by the Clarets stopper Tom Heaton. The Toffees eventually went on to win the match 1-0 and Barkley did well, but the swagger that propelled the youngster’s reputation last season was scarce again, as it has been for the majority of this turbulent campaign.
Rewind 12 months and Barkley’s stature was comparable to or perhaps even a little higher than the likes of Kane. He spearheaded an unexpected Champions League tilt for the Merseyside outfit, adding a direct drive to the nexus of Everton’s team with a bespoke brand of bustling midfield play.
Roberto Martinez’s men eventually came up just short in their endeavors, but the manager was unashamed in lavishing praise on Barkley, comparing him to the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Michael Ballack and insisting the potential is there for him to blossom into his country’s greatest ever footballer.
This season was expected to be a breakthrough one for the Englishman, a campaign on which he’d build on the captivating but capricious displays that were so prominent in 2013/14. But instead, there’s been plain regression for the Wavertree-born starlet.
An injury on the eve of the season curtain-raiser against Leicester City was a blow and ever since his reintegration into the squad, Barkley has treaded water. He’s bagged just two Premier League goals and one assist this season, has been shifted around the team in various tactical reshuffles and has even been subject to invective from his own supporters at various stages.
The penalty shambles—not the first time this situation has reared it’s ugly head at Goodison Park this season—was just another knock for a player who thrives on positive momentum, but toils without. Now, with Barkley’s stock perhaps as low it has been, there are plenty asking whether this young man, like so many before him, is just another overhyped English star.
But it’d be naive to go that far in the case of Barkley. The hope for all those associated with Everton is that this abrasive campaign will be a learning curve for the academy graduate and it’s something Martinez touched upon in the aftermath of the game against Burnley, per Chris Beesley of the Liverpool Echo:
I’m happier that he missed it rather than score it because as an experience it doesn’t get any better than wanting to take the responsibility, wanting to score in front of the Park End and then the performance from that point on was like someone who has been playing at this level for his whole career.
He is only a young man, he is only 21 and I was extremely impressed in the manner that he took responsibility, working for the team, doing his job, showing for the ball. …
He comes from a World Cup experience then all of a sudden he has found expectations, responsibility and an interesting learning curve.
Barkley is also suffering from the focus that accompanies every player coming through at their hometown club.
While supporters should be a lot more forgiving for a player who is one of their own, the inverse can occasionally be the case. After the cavalier displays he turned in so regularly last season, the frustrations at some meek showings have been enhanced further, as has Everton’s general melancholy as a whole.
While Barkley has endured a tough time of things, the young players at the club have been badly let down by some senior figures this season and a toxic Goodison Park atmosphere is no place for the faint-hearted. But for all his undeniable talent, the 21-year-old still emits the persona of a sensitive young lad.
He’s a big confidence player. When he’s performing well in a game those patented lung-busting runs from deep are commonplace, but should he misplace a pass or mistime a tackle, Barkley can quickly recoil into his shell and take the easy option.
For someone that’s still in the infancy of his career, that’s understandable and is a trait that will hopefully be ironed out as he continues to refine his malleable attributes. From that standpoint, his willingness to take the penalty kick against Burnley must be seen as a positive from a player not always keen on being center stage.
But perhaps most pertinently for Everton’s effervescent No. 20 is that he looks fatigued, both mentally and physically. Last season was his first full campaign as a professional footballer, with the strains of a World Cup to boot; this one has never really got going after the early injury set-back. Factor in problems that have punctured Toffees this season and it’s easy to see why he might be feeling a little drained.
Barkley is an instinctive footballer, at his best when making snap-decisions and tapping into those inherent tendencies. But those reflexes that made him an encapsulating watch last year are jaded. It’s why Everton are not privy for their star midfielder to jet off to the U21 European Championships this summer, with the player’s personal replenishment deemed more beneficial.
It’s going to make next season a critical one for the England international. After some months to recuperate, the onus will not only be on Everton to far surpass the moribund standards they’ve set this season, but for Barkley to make the transition from prodigious prospect to Toffees’ talisman.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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