Those looking in from outside of our Everton bubble may expect Ross Barkley to be unanimously lauded at Goodison Park by his supporters.
A local lad with such quality played at the heart of his boyhood team are factors which rarely align in the modern game after all, with emotional ties now secondary to an immediate, insatiable need for results in the Premier League. But despite Barkley’s position, one which all those of a blue persuasion would love to occupy, he’s not overly popular.
That much was evident during and after Everton’s 1-1 draw against Tottenham Hotspur. There were howls of derision from the stands when Barkley chose simple options and more angst when his final ball was careless late on in the game. By contrast, his manager was delighted with the display turned in.
“In my eyes, Ross Barkley’s performance was his most mature in three years,” said Roberto Martinez afterwards. “In two-and-a-half years, he’s gone from a player that had to be fitted into a structure to one that can player in different roles and master them. The bravery that he has, he receives the ball in every single situation.”
Indeed, while some itch for the raw, swashbuckling Barkley of 2013-14 or a midfield man who possesses more industry and the expense of ingenuity, what we are seeing in progress is a young footballer maturing.
The improvements this season have been clear. After not signing a creative midfielder in the summer, the burden of contributing in the final third was shifted onto the 22-year-old, whose shy demeanour would have had many concerned about whether he’d cope with such pressures. So far, with seven goals and seven assists in all competitions, there’s no denying he’s delivered emphatically in that sense.
Yet if we delve beyond the statistics and into the minutiae of his showings as of late, we’re also seeing a diamond of a footballer that’s smoothed down some of his rough edges.
During 2014-15, when fans were once again critical of the Wavertree lad, the midfielder seemed inhibited by the mantle of being a local hope and his form suffered as a consequence. But there’s a swagger which has exuded from a bulked up Barkley this term and brief segments of play which show the strides he has made.
He always wants the ball for starters, whether in space, with men around him, in advanced positions or dropping deeper. Barkley is happy to be bold in demanding possession and with his blend of brawn and technical flair, he’s been a very difficult player to take the ball from in 2015-16.
It may seem insignificant, but it’s a quality which has defined the best midfielders of this generation. While Barkley is clearly not to their standard yet, players such as Paul Scholes, Xavi Hernandez and Zinedine Zidane were happy to command possession in frantic contests, which can be just as brave as throwing yourself in for a crunching tackle.
Additionally, his repertoire of instinctive touches and inventive flicks has helped Everton move the ball quicker than last season, when passing was slow and stagnant.
Of course there are areas of his game where Barkley can make more progress, with his defensive work and final pass still capricious. But his maturation this season, while it may mean we see less lung-busting surges from one end of the pitch to the other, should be a cause for encouragement, not concern.
After all, this time last year who would have expected Barkley to be so efficient in possession—he’s completed 88 per cent of his passes this season—, so willing to take on responsibility and so decisive in the final third? That he’s adding more attributes to his game will only serve to make him a more accomplished, adaptable midfielder.
It may mean Barkley doesn’t become the cavalier Paul Gascoigne-type player which many have tipped him for in the past, but maybe something more. When the game is stretched he can carry Everton through phases, when it’s anarchic he can settle the side down and when the opposition fall back into a defensive shape, he can make game-changing contributions.
The frustrations amongst some fans are understandable, with scrutiny ramped up when it comes to a local player representing their team. In addition, in Jack Rodwell and Dan Gosling, other talented midfielders tipped for stardom, the Goodison Park crowd have seen prodigious players not live up to the hype.
But Barkley has proven he’s a cut above. He’s overcome the dreaded second season slump with panache this term, his end product has vastly improved and in general play, he’s knitted Everton’s thrilling attacking forays together superbly.
For all the concerns which linger around Goodison Park at the moment, Evertonians should at least be contented that one of their own is making steady but hugely encouraging progress.
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