Watford should have known better than to give Ross Barkley time and space in a central area. With the scores level after 55 minutes of their clash with Everton last Friday night, the Hornets defence backed off and allowed the hosts’ No.8 to drive forward with the ball and pull the trigger 25 yards from goal. It was a clean strike that arrowed into the bottom corner of the net, and it was ultimately enough for Ronald Koeman’s men to win the game in front of their own supporters.
This has been a rather strange season for Barkley. With one match left to play – Everton will travel to the Emirates Stadium to take on Arsenal on the final day – he has scored five goals, provided eight assists and played 72 key passes, which is more than anyone but Christian Eriksen, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Mesut Ozil. The 23-year-old has also played in a number of different roles: as a No.10, an inside forward in a 3-4-2-1 formation and even as a more conventional box-to-box central midfield.
Yet it has not all been positive. Barkley has at times been dropped and criticised by Koeman, who has not been afraid to take a publicly confrontational approach with his players at times this term. The Dutchman labelled Barkley’s performance “not good enough” following a 1-0 defeat by Southampton in November, while he has also made clear his intention to sell the England international unless he puts pen to paper on a new contract at Goodison Park.
The ball has therefore been placed firmly in Barkley’s court, and it will be interesting to see what happens next. The idea of sticking around and potentially becoming a bona fide club legend must be appealing to the boyhood Toffee, yet at the same time it would be difficult for Barkley – or any player of his age – to resist the lure and bright lights of the Champions League should a participating side come calling.
Whether or not they will remains to be seen. Tottenham Hotspur have been linked with a move throughout this season; there is something reminiscent of Mousa Dembele when Barkley drives past opponents in the centre of the park, so perhaps Mauricio Pochettino seems him as a potential long-term successor to the Belgian. Nevertheless, there is unlikely to be the type of tug of war for his services that team-mate Romelu Lukaku will probably attract this summer or next, and Spurs may yet decide that Barkley is not worth the sort of fee that Everton would presumably demand for a gifted homegrown player who has not yet reached his peak years.
The principal deficiency in Barkley’s game is his decision-making. The 23-year-old is often guilty of holding onto possession for too long and shooting when he should pass, and it remains doubtful whether he has the type of footballing brain that is usually required for an attacking midfielder to thrive at the highest level. It is also the type of skill that can be extremely difficult for a coach to teach; at Barkley’s age, it is highly likely that you either have it or you do not.
In terms of natural ability, there are not many more gifted English players around than the Everton man. Barkley has struggled to take the definitive next step in his career since making a promising breakthrough a few years ago, though, which will probably raise alarm bells when the Premier League’s top-six sides discuss their transfer targets in the coming weeks. In the end, it would not be at all surprising to see Barkley extend his contract at Goodison Park due to a lack of concrete interest from elsewhere.