Underrating the Unexpected – Ross Barkley and spontaneous play 8 March 2014

Ross Barkley

Ross Barkley

Andres Iniesta is not the only artist who learned his trade in Barcelona – 100 years or so ago, Pablo Picasso was learning his in Catalonia too. Or rather, he was unlearning his trade as his famous quote claims – “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”. Ross, rather than Raphael, is the name on Everton fans’ lips, but Picasso – as usual – had a point.

Since his return from injury, Barkley has provoked more groans than grins amongst Evertonians as his high risk, head up, play-the-same-anywhere-on-the-pitch approach, has ceded possession, yielding all-important turnover ball to opponents and turning Everton’s marauding full-backs on their heels and, maybe, giving them pause in going forward. His confidence looked a little sapped by the difficulties of returning from injury to Premier League football for the first time, but, crucially, his manager never stopped talking him up and did not shield him, bringing his playmaker back to the team as soon as he could.

Everton’s goal at The Emirates owed much to Barkley’s adherence to Picasso’s lifetime’s work. Everton’s Number 20 has been given a structure in which to work – Martinez as Raphael – with a strong back four protected by the new “Dogs of War”, Barry and McCarthy, breaking things up and keeping it simple in front of the back line. Ahead of him, Barkley has the Premier League’s most traditional centre-forward, Lukaku running hard, getting on the end of things and alongside him, the tricky Pienaar and direct Mirallas. It’s a solid platform. But it’s predictable.

Where is the spontaneity? Where the foolish risk? Where the schoolboy errors? Ross Barkley is the man-child to unlearn the discipline and drills of his ten team-mates and take a chance. He must make it up as he goes along, running at full tilt. He must do things that don’t show up on the video analysts’ laptops, stuff that can’t be distilled from the stats and planned for, deliver the plays that get fans on their feet. 

The attitudes of the playground footballer will bring the same kind of errors you will see in a playground – only the very best (including football’s greatest ever example of the man-child I am trying to describe – Diego Maradona) ever manage to excise the downside while keeping the upside, so Ross Barkley will never be reliable.

But reliability – and orthodoxy – is the stuff of mid-table seasons, of decent results, of, well, much (though not all) of what Evertonians saw from David Moyes’ teams. It’s good – have a look at Leeds United or Sheffield Wednesday if you want to take issue with that point – but it’s not enough to win things. If football is to have a Blue Period, Ross Barkley must learn from the boy footballer he was a few short years ago. His team-mates can continue to study Raphael / Roberto’s drills – he must become Picasso. 

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