The Missing Spark

Injured on the eve of the season, the return of Ross Barkley and his precocious talents are eagerly anticipated.

This season has seen plenty of change already, and it’s only October. However, amid the differing formations and the various players used, one notable absentee has missed out and been unable to help shake Everton from their early season slumber.

On the eve of this campaign, fully recuperated after his World Cup obligations, injury cruelly struck to deprive manager Roberto Martinez of the talent and potential of young midfielder Ross Barkley.

Injured in training the day before the opening match at Leicester, Barkley is due to resume full training during the forthcoming international break, although his return is likely to be a gradual process after almost eight weeks on the sidelines.

Such a day is a welcome prospect, though, with the youngster sorely missed these past two months. Everton are a different, considerably tamer beast without the formidable attacking threat of Barkley, who is the only genuine so-called ‘number 10’ in the squad.

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Despite less than 30 Premier League starts and just 56 appearances for the club since a man-of-the-match debut against Queens Park Rangers in August 2011, it is the impression left by last season’s breakthrough that makes him such a key figure.

Nonetheless, the first hints of such promise arrived on his aforementioned debut. On the left of a frightful midfield, with Leon Osman and John Heitinga in the centre flanked by Jack Rodwell on the right, Barkley stood out. Aged just 17, he easily put many of his more experienced colleagues to shame.

Fast-forward to the present day and Barkley, with the ability to beat opponents from a standing start, is one of the few players at Martinez’s disposal capable of providing the necessary change of pace so vital at this level. Kevin Mirallas and Aiden McGeady can match the dribbling aspect but both lack the strength and power evident in their teammate’s game.

Inconsistencies remain – of that, there is little doubt – but under the guidance of a manager willing to take the rough with the smooth, such errors will not face the scathing admonishment prevalent under the previous regime, especially when the evidence of Barkley’s quality outweighed the blips last season.

There was the opening day goal at Norwich, slammed into the back of the net from outside the penalty area with his weaker foot, or the slaloming 70-yard run and finish at Newcastle, where the Toffees offered up their most clinical away performance of the season. Perhaps the best example within the current squad of a player possessing the ‘footballing arrogance’ that Martinez regularly references, the fearless midfielder saved his best until last, however.

Reminiscent of another standout goal scored by the previous local lad living the dream in royal blue, Barkley delivered the best, most recent example of his undoubted excellence in the final home game of the season against Manchester City, lashing an unstoppable first-time effort from distance beyond Joe Hart. It was nestling in the far corner before the England goalkeeper had a chance to think.

Another reason for Barkley’s eagerly awaited comeback is the chance to renew his burgeoning partnership with record signing Romelu Lukaku. The two youngsters appeared at their best when spearheading the Blues’ attack last season, with Barkley occupying the number 10 role behind Lukaku; the home win over Newcastle showcased them at their destructive best.

In spite of well-taken strikes against West Brom and Crystal Palace, though, Lukaku has not looked the same player as the one plundering 16 goals last term. While the World Cup and a sedate pre-season may be a reason for this slow start, with the forward displaying the touch of a man wearing concrete boots, the absence of Barkley is also a possible factor.

As impressive as his form has been – it has been largely excellent, particularly in terms of goal scored – Steven Naismith, the current player tasked with supplying the ammunition for Lukaku, is not suited to the role. The skills required for the position behind the striker – a sound touch, quick feet and an eye for a pass – are not his forte.

Barkley, on the other hand, excels in those areas and his powerful running style is tailor-made for Lukaku. Opening up the pitch, dragging defenders toward him and away from others, the extra space for the young Belgian to operate in could prove decisive.

Barkley is also proficient in supplying the kind of through balls too often lacking thus far, with the opening goal against Crystal Palace being the only current example of a forward receiving the requisite service in the final third, with Leon Osman assisting on that occasion.

Feeding on scraps, forced to graft to the point of despair, Lukaku has cut a forlorn, tired figure in attack. Several stints on the flanks, both right and left, merely compounded his present problems.

Looking for a spark, something to breathe life into an indifferent, unexpectedly poor start, the renewal of this pairing (and the return of their great midfield hope) could be just the ticket for bringing the best out of Everton and their leading striker when the season resumes after the upcoming international break.