There hasn’t been a January transfer window quite so memorable since Chelsea splashed £50 million on Fernando Torres in 2011. In relative terms, that was an extraordinary sum of money, which, to the glee of many, had the perverse effect of sending the Spanish striker in to terminal decline.
Fast forward seven years and we bear witness to a window dominated by the oft incongruous Sanchez saga. In a spectacular volte-face, Manchester City, those former bastions of fiscal extravagance and a club propped up by a state with a questionable human rights record, turned their back on financial immoderation and instead attempted to reinvent themselves as football’s guardians of restraint and decency. We may well have spent £130 million on three wing-backs, but one of the Premier League’s leading lights for a quarter of that? No thanks. The irony of City balking at Sanchez’ asking price for financial reasons will not be lost on many.
Amusingly, Sanchez ended up on the red side of Manchester for no fee whatsoever, and, in true homage to the ‘football’s gone’ movement, the multi-talented forward announced his arrival with a pianistic rendition of ‘Glory Glory Man United.’ Who are the noisy neighbours now? What’s more, Mikhitaryan went the other way in a very timely and reassuring reminder that the old-fashioned swap deal isn’t dead.
As if that wasn’t enough, Chelsea injected more life and humour in to the window with their relentless pursuit of a preferably English and not-very-good target man. The prime target, so to speak, was Andy Carroll, but the search was also widened to include 1-goal-in-18 hitman Christian Benteke, and it reached its apogee with stories linking Peter Crouch to his boyhood club. Rumour has it that Ali Dia continues to wait expectantly by the phone.
All of which is a roundabout way of getting to a transfer that, given the circus occurring elsewhere, somewhat slipped under the radar this month. Other than the Mayor of Liverpool channelling his 15-year old self, as opposed to his elected representative of the people self, and reporting the transfer to the police on account of fraud, Ross Barkley joined Chelsea in a £15m deal with little fanfare.
Barkley joins Chelsea in a £15m January move.
From a pure business perspective, the switch makes perfect sense. With Roman’s roubles drying up in preparation for the £1bn regeneration of Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s current focus is on procuring young talent, tying them to long-term contracts and immediately seeing their sell-on value increase. There are, of course, some risks involved. Barkley is yet to play a competitive game this season due to a serious hamstring problem, and he struggled for form last season under the volatile stewardship of Ronald Koeman. It also almost certainly spells the end for Reuben Loftus-Cheek’s not quite fledgling Chelsea career. In some ways, then, it is a risk, but certainly a calculated one. Acquiring a 24-year old England international on the eve of his prime for a relative snip at £15m is undoubtedly sensible business.
But business reasons rarely hold sway with paying punters, and there is an element of scepticism among fans about what Barkley can really offer to his new club. As of yet, his career-path has shades of the Wilshere, the Walcott and the Ox; initial promise quickly devolving in to unfulfilled potential. Barkley burst on to the scene in 2013/14, and quickly made waves as a regular starter at Goodison Park, earning himself a place at England’s ignominious 2014 World Cup campaign. Since then it has hard evidence of a tangible progression in the midfielder’s ability has been few and far between, fuelling the uncertainty surrounding Barkley’s move to Chelsea. Such unpredictability and inconsistency provides the intrigue to this transfer, the success of which depends entirely on which Ross Barkley the club end up getting
Undeniably, Barkley has the talent to make it work. Anyone who has seen his solo 70-yard run and goal against Newcastle in the FA Cup in 2014 will know of a player who travels effortlessly with the ball, driving at defences with a threatening directness. Not since Lampard have Chelsea had an effective ball-carrying midfielder. Bakayoko has shown glimpses of it this season but he lacks the confidence to do it with any regularity.
Barkley similarly retains a good eye for an incisive forward pass; the type to penetrate an opposition midfield and find teammates operating in between the lines. His career-average pass length currently stands at 17m, level with Paul Pogba and 2m ahead of Bakoyoko, whilst 56% of his passes have arrived at a forward’s feet. Theoretically, this is the type of service that Hazard, Morata et al would thrive off.
He is also extremely well regarded by those who know and play the game, which, with the exception of those “proper football men”, does hold some weight as an indicator of his prodigious talent. Xavi, no-less, once declared that Barkley had the technical attributes to be a success at Barcelona, whilst Gary Lineker has often likened him to Gazza. Ray Hall, Barkley’s former Everton academy coach, recently told a story of how he asked Barkley to take four penalties in order to decipher which foot was his stronger. He took two with his left and two with his right and duly despatched all four.
And yet, we still have nothing concrete to reinforce this reputational pedigree. In fact, a brief look at the midfielder’s Premier League statistics reveals an alarming lack of productivity, entirely at odds with much of the fanfare surrounding his burgeoning career.
How Barkley compares to his Premier League counterparts.
In his 150 league appearances, Barkley has contributed just 21 goals, (roughly 1 in 7). By comparison, Dele Alli contributes 0.36 goals a game, (over 1 in 3). Coutinho, Eriksen and De Bruyne, meanwhile, all average 1 in 4. A higher calibre of player, admittedly, but Barkley’s numbers are also dwarfed by those considered to be his equals. Gylfi Sigurdsson’s league goals come at a rate of 1 in 4, whilst Adam Lallana operates at 1 in 5. Even Cesc Fabregas, far from famed for his goal-scoring exploits, boasts a better goals per game ratio.
A similar pattern emerges in terms of assists. The heavyweights De Bruyne and Fabregas contribute approximately 1 In every 2 , and 1 in every 3 matches respectively, whilst Ali and Pogba come in at 1 in 4. Again, Barkley, at a rate of 0.12 per game, finds himself some distance behind both Sigurdsson and Lallana. In creating key chances, he is, once more, lightyears away from De Bruyne, Eriksen, Coutinho, Ali and Sigurdsson, instead producing a clear goal-scoring opportunity just once in every six games – the same rate as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. This hardly has the hallmarks of Gasgcoine 2.0.
Defensively, too, there seem to be more problems than answers. Less than 1 tackle per game is a paltry ratio, outstripped by Fabregas, Lallana, Coutinho and De Bruyne – none of whom are obvious candidates for the league’s most combative midfielder. By way of interceptions, moreover, Barkley find himself behind this select list of contemporaries. Perhaps this could be attributed to the fact that Barkley has not yet had the luxury of being part of a side that play consistently on the front foot, and press high up the pitch. Yet Sigurdsson, his ex-Everton teammate and formerly of lowly Swansea, is making one interception per game, which is twice that of Barkley.
The blunt fact is that these less than inspiring numbers simply do not square with the media reputation ascribed to him as an industrious, dynamic and inventive midfielder. If Barkley is to make a success of himself at Stamford Bridge, he needs to offer much more in every department.
In fairness, much like Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and, to a lesser extent, Wilshere, it is refreshing to see him break free from his comfort zone at Everton, and attempt rediscover his form in new surroundings. Cynics will argue that he is simply chasing a pay check, but, in a World Cup year, it may hold the key to him resurrecting an international career.
Can Barkley resurrect an England career?
Whilst the emergence of Kane, Ali and Sterling has somewhat allayed fears within the national set-up as to a developing trend of stagnating English talent, the fact they arrived at Barkley’s expense must grate on a man who had similar prospects not long ago. The instrumental role that all three play for both club and country should provide the impetus he needs to prevent a bright career from escaping him.
Not unlike his hometown, the Wavertree boy remains a little loose around the edges. Only time will tell as to whether Chelsea can turn this diamond in the rough in to the finished article. It is a move that may yet provide the salvation Barkley needs to ensure he does not end up drowning in the footballing dung-heap.