Category Archives: Barkley

On Barkley and Naismith – Everton 0 Swansea 0

My ball!

My ball!

The Barkley-Naismith Problem sounds like one of those mathematical conjectures that attracts a $1M prize that is unclaimed since 1974. Everton’s very own Barkley-Naismith Problem might prove as intractable unless Roberto can find a way of blending these two non-complementary talents. There is no future in having twice as much possession as our opponents and fashioning just three attempts on target as was the case vs an obdurate Swansea, aided by a tolerant referee.

Since Ross Barkley started his season late, he has caught the eye with his dribbling, his prompting and his general busyness in the final third, but it came as something of a surprise that his assist for Samuel Eto’o’s curler into the corner of the Burnley net last week was his first assist in his Premier League career. The long-standing Everton issue of converting pass completions into a killer ball remains, with Leighton Baines still the most likely source of unlocking a drilled defence. Though Barkley is still learning his game, it’s perhaps a tinge disappointing that after what must have been a period of rehabilitation during which he worked with coaches and video analysis, he still knocks the ball off sideways (as often as not) when probing for an opening. The game-changer needs to change games

That might not be so bad – and might be too harsh a criticism for a young player – were it not for Barkley’s impact on Steven Naismith, Everton’s best player in the first half dozen matches of the season. Pushed wide to give the England man a free role “in the hole”, the spaces Naismith nosed out between the lines and the late runs into the box that yielded goals, have become much less frequent (though the Scot’s work ethic has blocked opposition full-backs effectively). Opposition centre-halves must be very pleased to see Naismith so distant from domain.

Can the two men best suited to the attacking midfielder role be accommodated in the same XI? Three shots on target in 90 minutes and a reluctance to cross the ball due to an absence of numbers in the penalty box suggest that they can’t at the moment. And (whisper it) if you had to pick one or the other, wouldn’t it make more sense to pick Steven Naismith? Heresy I know, but Ross Barkley might not be an automatic first choice and rotation may well be the best option regardless of the fixture list’s demands.

Ross Barkley – a crisis or an opportunity?

Some things to do on a rainy day

Some things to do on a rainy day

If the news of Romelu Lukaku’s signing was akin to Christmas morning for Blues, the grim prognosis about Ross Barkley’s injury is the tipsy dad standing on the favourite present, shattering (literally) all the childish joy before Morecambe and Wise have emerged from that curtain.

Or is it? Second seasons, like second albums, are notoriously tough gigs: opposition coaches have worked out a weakness or two; life off the pitch has become very complicated; and, more than any other factor, expectations have been raised in the febrile world of football to the usual unrealistic levels. But the air has now spluttered out of the Barkley balloon as he faces, for the second time in a young career, an extended period of rehabilitation.

And this is where crisis turns to opportunity. If the young man is as conscientious a listener as his manager suggests and if he is as keen as he should be to explore his potential, the rehab will teach him much. He has now grown into his rangy frame and he should talk and talk and talk to his medical support team during the long physio sessions that will fill the Autumn about how he should treat his most precious gift – his body. Though British players are much more engaged with an holistic approach to fitness (it’s seen as a 24/7 job) than they were even ten years ago, a feeling persists that European players are more understanding of the impact of a night on the booze or a failure to stretch properly, never mind poor diet.

Barkley might also watch a lot of football (maybe even read about it too) and not just from the stands at Goodison. Wouldn’t it be great to see him spending a weekend taking in a couple of Bundesliga matches? Or at the Camp Nou or Bernabeu on a European night? I recall reading about a young Arsenal player who was told to sit in the stands and simply watch Steve Bould as a intensive lesson in defensive positioning – Barkley might do the same watching James Rodriguez.

And, when he returns for a fifteen minute cameo sometime after Christmas, the applause that will greet him will not be overly infected with false hopes. Nobody – outside the more clickbait-oriented websites – will expect him to “…rescue Everton’s season”; “…lead The Toffees to an FA Cup, twenty years on”; “…add a touch of magic that might secure a Champions League spot.” The talk will be more of the start of a long process, the benefits of which will show next season – of building towards an Aaron Ramsay maturity rather than a Jack Wilshere inconsistency.

Who wouldn’t want to sign a £30M player in the January window? That, if the young man makes the most of his misfortune, will be Barkley’s impact come the sharp end of the season. Things ain’t so bad after all.

The Magnificent Seven halted, then ride towards the Europa League

Everton - plenty to have a shot, but where's the defence?

Everton – plenty to have a shot, but where’s the defence?

Nature is pleased by balance. Sometimes we don’t even know it’s there – think of a snowflake revealed under a microscope – and sometimes it’s bleedin’ obvious – think Ross Barkley or John Stones striding through a midfield, able to go off either foot. But balance in football is about more than the physical qualities of the players – it’s also about the make-up of the side.

Even with the Manchester City game looming – for which Gareth Barry is ineligible – it was a surprise to see Roberto Martinez leave James McCarthy on the bench to try Ross Barkley as the veteran’s partner in the DM screening role. It was even more surprising to see Gerard Deulofeu, Kevin Mirallas and Aiden McGeady together in the starting XI. Everton looked unbalanced between natural attackers and natural defenders on paper and, come the match itself, on the lush Goodison turf too.

Barry looked a little fatigued – mentally as much as physically – and he missed his hard-running Irish scrapper alongside him. Barkley had time on the ball, but his deeper starting position made his hip-swivelling dribbles less dangerous and exposed the weakest element of his game – picking a pass. When McCarthy did get a go as a substitute on the hour, he looked hungry for action and immediately bolstered Everton’s short-handed defensive effort.

But the real problems were up front. You can understand the reasoning – Everton were always going to have plenty of possession against a Tony Pulis team, so why not max out the number of players most likely to break down the wall of yellow shirts? Somehow – as Carlos Tevez, currently out of favour for Argentina (who have options up the field), is finding out – it doesn’t quite work that way. Chase the game, send the big fella up front for the last five minutes, go 4-2-4 – however it comes about, it seldom pays off to have men trying to jink past defenders right, left and centre. For all the flair players scattered across the pitch, Everton had just one more shot on target than their opponents, despite cornering 70% of the possession.

Yes, yes, but had you offered Roberto Martinez two goals at the start of the match, he would have taken them, backing his hitherto outstanding back four and keeper to keep Palace to two goals or fewer and thus seize back fourth place. To their manager’s credit, when they did get the ball, Palace were direct in attack and finished with no little skill “doing a job” on Everton in – dare I say – Moyesian style. Everton – for once abandoning the balance that has served them so well for the season’s 33 previous games – have their work cut out now the sequence of seven straight wins has been halted and momentum dissipated. Fourth is still on, but Martinez needs snookers from here.

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. 

Educating Gwladys – Ross Barkley and Andres Iniesta 19 October 2013

Have you heard about this lad at Everton?

Have you heard about this lad at Everton?

Sitting at the back of the Gwladys Street stand, the traditional home of Everton’s hardcore support, it was impossible to avoid the waves of frustration breaking all round the grand old ground as The Blues dominated Hull City, but seemed reluctant to try a shot on goal. Worse still, the consistent refusal to obey an inner voice that was screaming “Can we not knock it?” especially as Steve Bruce had plainly settled for leaving Sylvain Distin as the spare man – which merely illustrated why this very fine defender has no caps for France. M. Distin is no passer of a football. But the big man is learning, and so are the Goodison faithful – but it’s going to take time.

At the heart of The Roberto Martinez Project – as progressive as the rock it’s name suggests – is Ross Barkley, local boy, England player, and lifelong Evertonian.  Even with all that in his favour (and Bluenoses never forget that he hasn’t worn a “Once a Blue” T-shirt) there were rumbles of discontent as the fabled Barkley balance engineered a yard of space in and around the box and… he passed. 

This, then, is a true believer in the doctrine of tiki-taka, of the One True Way that has delivered so much to Spain’s national team and Barcelona, of The Roberto Martinez Project. I wondered at half-time (and I was not alone) whether I agreed with Barkley and his boss.

I do. And what sealed it was the thought of who Ross Barkley might become, because, though I had thought of him growing into a latter-day Gazza, The Project will turn him into another player, a player so beautiful, so successful, so awe-inspiring that we have to give the teenage Scouser the opportunity to see how close he can come to the real thing. Because Ross Barkley might, just might, become England’s Andres Iniesta.

Wait! Before such blasphemy invites a Spanish Inquisition, I am not claiming that Barkley is as good as the Barcelona wizard – but he could become a version of him. The ball will be retained at almost any cost (certainly at the price of passing to a man under pressure – usually a cardinal sin) and each possession will be assessed with shooting for goal just one option among many, and not the default whenever a clear sighting of the target arises. Patterns will be created, the ball recycled cries of “Shoot FFS!” will rent the air.

But I shall believe in the young man in the Number 20 shirt and the young man in the dugout, because, if you could watch one man play every week of the last six years or so, would it not have been Iniesta? To see the man run with the ball, pass the ball, retain the ball, has been a consistent joy, even as the light has dimmed a little both in his club’s and national team’s play. If he is the template, that’ll do for me.

Ross Barkley – Believe the hype 18 August 2013

Scary!!

Scary!!

There have been false dawns. On the first day of the season a quarter-century ago, Tony Cottee brought his 20+ goals per season game to Goodison and had a hat-trick within an hour of accepting a hero’s welcome, but he never quite delivered for Everton as he did for West Ham. Danny Cadamarteri’s wonder goal in the Autumn derby of 1998 raised the prospect of us having our own Michael Owen, but the Yorkshire lad faded in his early twenties, not his late twenties. Throw in Francis Jeffers and the tragic case of Billy Kenny and there’s plenty cause for caution.

But, as I hoped for writing before the season began, it looks like we will be seeing much more of Ross Barkley, after his all-round excellent performance at Norwich, capped by a fine goal. But is it another false dawn, or is the teenager the real deal?

At 19, the kid has already had to deal with a major injury that, like all things at that age that do not kill, will have made him stronger, mentally and physically. There’s nothing like the fleeting thought of a dream possibly dashed, followed by the grim slog of injury rehab to put a young man’s feet on the ground. There will be periods out of the team, early substitutions and a few kicks from the Premier League’s old guard to come (as he’s now a marked man), but it’ll never be as bad as the aftermath of 2010’s triple leg fracture.

But what really matters is that most nebulous, some say deceitful, quality called talent. Some players grow into their talent – think of Tim Cahill’s long apprenticeship at Millwall that led to his compensating for a lack of pace with positioning and timing. Some are one-trick ponies – Stuart Barlow had pace to burn, but it never seemed to take him to the right place. Barkley, however, has talent’s most clear marker, the one that never lies – preternatural balance. It is this balance that separated Wayne Rooney from the pack; that captivated Goodison when Peter Beardsley wore the blue shirt and, (the name is already being mentioned re Barkley) propelled Gazza into The Pantheon. And, as I wrote here, balance isn’t just important in football.

Watch Barkley receive the ball on the half turn and move into space; watch opponents buzz around him, but not quite get close enough to land a blow; watch the shift of the ball from under the nose into exactly the right place to strike it for his goal at Carrow Road – from whence comes the power in the “wrong foot” – and believe.

Whisper it, but the player of which he reminds me in these early days, is not Paul Gascoigne, but another who played in an advanced midfield role before we really knew what that was – Kenny Dalglish. The bar is that high. Mr Martinez: please protect and polish our diamond in the diamond.

Everton 2013-14 – Beware The John Carew Effect 31 July 2013

Chips with everything

Chips with everything

You remember John Carew don’t you? Big old bruiser of a centre-forward who knocked around Europe and ended up playing at the Villa for a few seasons. Pondering on Everton’s upcoming season, I had cause to recall a remark I made on The Guardian’s Minute-By-Minute coverage of a match in which Carew was bustling and boring through defenders. The John Carew Effect (so I pompously styled it), referred to a player who is far too good to play in a relegation team, but nowhere near good enough to play in a Champions League team. He’s impossible to drop, yet his very presence means that the team are stymied in their ambitions, destined for a mid-table finish. Everton’s current squad have a lot of John Carews.

We love them, they’re solid pros and who wouldn’t want the likes of Jagielka, Distin, Osman, Pienaar, Gibson and Anichebe in their squads? Well, Champions League clubs to be honest, otherwise they would have driven a lorry load of money up to Goodison and emptied it into the boardroom – as they may still do for Fellaini and Baines (though that’s looking more and more doubtful). While it’s comforting to know that even Mike Walker couldn’t get that set of players into relegation worries, it’s also frustrating to know that a top four finish (or even an FA Cup) looks further away rather than closer – especially with the ongoing comedy across Stanley Park beginning to get serious for the first time in years.

So are we destined to another goodish top ten finish of the kind to which we have become (perhaps complacently) accustomed during the Moyes years? Well, nothing is certain in sport – though top level football’s business model is doing all it can to make it so.

My interest this season – as it has been for the last five or so – will concentrate on two related matters. Of course, there’s finishing ahead of Liverpool as Priority Number One for all of us who remember endless open-top buses being saluted by Reds May after May after May. But there’s also the development of our young players: the ones who may not be John Carews; the ones who may actually turn into Didier Drogbas.

Will Joel Robles become the consistent goalkeeper that so few clubs possess? Will Kevin Mirallas stay fit and deliver those scintillating runs and devastating finishes more consistently? Can Seamus Coleman ally a rock solid defensive game to his burgeoning attacking threat? And, most exciting of all, can creative teenage midfielders Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu realise their potential in world football’s toughest finishing school? Not both, surely, but won’t it be fun seeing them have a real go?

So what do you want? The John Carews guaranteeing that we pick up the points away at West Brom and Newcastle and the likes to lift us from 10th to 8th next May? Or the chance to see Barkley and Deulofeu, at risk of finishing 12th? I’ll take 12th.