There were plenty of parallels to draw between the fortunes of Everton and Ross Barkley last season. They were each jaded, tepid and lacking confidence. Fanatical supporters lost patience with both and were more than happy to make those feelings heard. The result was an underwhelming campaign; foreboding feelings of promise would go unfulfilled.
At the start of this term, parallels remain, but they have a much more positive slant. There’s a renewed vibrancy about Everton, as they’ve started the campaign with conviction and determination. Much of that is due to the galvanizing performances of Barkley, who has resembled a replenished young footballer in the Toffees’ six Premier League games so far.
A summer break has clearly aided Barkley, who was troubled last term. An injury on the eve of the 2014-15 season sapped any momentum carried over from the previous campaign, but the strive of manager Roberto Martinez to find a remedy to Everton’s dire form saw the England international shunted around the team. It was an inconsistency in position which manifested in some erratic displays.
The Goodison Park crowd harshly took a lot of angst out on Barkley, too. Local players are revered more than most when the team is in form, but they feel the brunt of the supporters’ stick in tumultuous times, as they’re figures who resonate emotionally with the fans. Barkley, a sensitive character by all accounts, was crippled by the anger of a crowd rife with unrest.
But the lad from Wavertree has been emboldened in the early weeks of the season. Evertonians were witness to a bright spark from Barkley on the opening day of the campaign as he scored a stunning goal against Watford. Since then, the 21-year-old has gone from strength to strength.
The England international has bossed games against quality opposition in Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea in recent weeks, but it was his showing against Swansea City, another fine side, at the Liberty Stadium which was his most encouraging of the campaign.
It didn’t contain a stunning goal like his display at Southampton, or a couple of assists like against Chelsea. But at Swansea, there’s was a wonderful balance of swagger and sensibility about him.
The scintillating surges that lit up the Premier League in 2013-14 may not have been quite as prominent, but there’s a burgeoning intelligence from Barkley when it comes to affecting the game. Indeed, as other midfielders wilted during a frantic fixture in south Wales, Everton’s No. 20 grew in stature, floating into dangerous positions, demanding possession and creating chances.
There were still moments of magic from the midfielder. The manner in which he toyed with Kyle Naughton before fizzing in dangerous crosses was befitting of a player who Martinez would take great pride in saying boasts a “football arrogance.” But it’s the decisions Barkley made with the ball at his feet which point towards a player that’s progressing.
Barkley is beginning to understand when to take the simple choice, when he can use his imposing frame to win cheap free kicks, and when there is a chance to play a penetrating pass, he’s getting better at it. Indeed, statistically, his past two matches against Chelsea and Swansea have been the most creative performances of his career so far, with four and six chances created, respectively.
For a player who looked devoid of that kind of authority last season, that’s hugely encouraging. And for a midfielder who remains a confidence player, doing the simple things will give him more conviction when looking to conjure special pieces of play.
Anatomically, Barkley seems to have grown, too. For a player who is still only 21, that shouldn’t be a great shock, but in a league which is seeing an influx of sleight, technical players in central areas, the fact Barkley can marry his burly build with intricacy and dynamism is a major asset.
A switch seems to have flicked for the youngster. With Martinez not able to draft in the cerebral No. 10 that he craved in the previous transfer window, the creative burden has been thrust upon Barkley, who had only notched two Premier League assists in the two campaigns prior to the current one. He has three already this term.
It’s a responsibility which could have easily weighed heavy on the shoulders of someone that’s never emitted the aura of a talisman. But Barkley has relished this promotion and seems beset on making up for the patchy performances he turned in in 2014-15.
There’s no surprise his fortunes and Everton’s are so closely intertwined. The local lad breathes life into this team with his bustling midfield displays and is fast assuming the mantle as one of the Toffees’ most important players. In a squad glistening with young jewels like John Stones, Romelu Lukaku and Brendan Galloway, Barkley is quickly reestablishing himself the Toffees’ most eye-catching diamond.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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