There is currently more to the football world in Liverpool than one of the biggest rivalries in the UK and in Europe between Everton FC and Liverpool FC. The Merseyside clubs can pride themselves with possessing two of the biggest talents in world football: Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley.
It is now 10 years since Ross Barkley joined Everton’s academy as an 11 year old boy. A lot of time has passed since then, time, during which the young player developed to become one of the brightest gems of English football. Barkley has flourished for Everton ever since Roberto Martinez took the helm last season. He gave the young midfielder a chance which he took with gratitude, lighting up Everton’s season and helping them to a superb 5th place in the league. His performances rightfully earned him a call up to the England Squad for the World Cup in Brazil.
In his breakthrough season, Barkley illuminated the Premier League, fearlessly running at defenders with the ball at his feet, trying to make something happen from his role behind Lukaku. The moment he receives the goal, he knows exactly where he wants to go and more often than not he chooses the shortest route towards goal. He is technically very gifted and has the ability to lift fans off their seat when he gets the ball in the final third of the pitch. But being one of the league’s best dribblers is not his only strong point, Barkley also has a great eye for a pass and manages to complete a very impressive percentage of passes.
Last season he was often deployed just behind the striker, but Martinez likes to experiment with his talented midfielder and sometimes starts him in a deeper holding role. The Spanish coach wants to give Barkley the opportunity to experience playing in all different types of roles throughout the midfield, as this is an important part of his development and a chance for him to find out which position suits his style of play the best.
The Englishman is strong defensively as well, he does not shy away from the ball and if he does lose it, he quickly tries to recover it by hunting down the opposition. What’s even more impressive about his game is that he does not dive into tackles, instead he shows maturity and tends to stand his ground, which means he does not launch into tackles and doesn’t concede needless fouls. At 6 feet 3, he is not the type of player that gets beaten in aerial duels easily, but still shows remarkable agility and feet for his build.
So far this season he has failed to reach the heights of last season’s performances, and that reflects on the whole Everton team who are now 12th in the Premier League. His dip in form this season is only a response to how other teams now approach the threat of Ross Barkley on the pitch. Last season, he was a youngster on the pitch enjoying his game and loving every minute on the pitch. Now he has made a name for himself, he is Ross Barkley and the opposition often uses two players to close him down. That results in him not getting the space he had last year to create chances and make differences in games, but it does create gaps for his teammates around him to exploit. This is all a part of his development and he should be flattered that he gets “special attention” from opposition defenders. He still has a long way to go and a lot to learn, but the 21 year old undeniably has the skills, talent and the character to shine.
Barkley has established himself as one of the brightest talents in the Premier League, but does he have what it takes to be a world class one in a generation player and measure himself against Europe’s very best midfielders? Let’s find out just that by comparing Barkley to some of the most talented young midfielders in the world. To show just how versatile he is, we will compare Barkley in two separate ways to two different types of central midfielders. In the first stats comparison, the Englishman’s offensive contributions will come up against the best young offensive midfielders in the world in James Rodriguez, the World Cup star from Real Madrid; Germany’s World Cup hero and former Golden Boy Award winner Mario Gotze from Bayern; one of Bundesliga’s rising talents Hakan Calhanoglu from Bayer Leverkusen and Spain and Atletico Madrid’s young star Koke.
When compared to his talented midfield colleagues, we can straight away see Barkley’s greatest weakness. His contribution to the team lacks a clear end product. His statistics from chances created and key passes are the lowest from all of the midfielders with 1.41 chances created and 1.34 key passes per game. These stats are in no way low, but they are not as impressive as the ones of James Rodriguez (2.77 chances and 2.33 key passes) or Ross Barkley: the diamond in the rough with a world class potential
Hakan Calhanoglu (2.45 and 2.31 respectively). His offensive contribution has also resulted in few goals and assists so far this season, one of each to be precise. Meanwhile Mario Gotze has bagged seven goals so far this season with James Rodriguez having six goals to his name and seven assists. The Colombian has directly contributed to 13 of Real Madrid’s goals, the most of all midfielders. Koke leads the total number of assists with 8.
Barkley’s stats from last season show a very similar pattern, having created less than one chance and producing less than one key pass a game. It is therefore fair to say he has been more creative this season despite not reaching his best form yet, his team mates have simply not finished off the chances he has prepared. His goals stats were at 0.24 per game, which would be level with Calhanoglu’s goalscoring record this season but still behind Gotze and James.
However, his lack of end product is seemingly Barkley’s only weakness as he storms ahead in the remaining two categories. As mentioned earlier, the 21 year old is a very good passer and he rarely misplaces a pass. As an attacking midfielder, that is a very impressive accuracy given that more than half of his passes are forward and he operates just in front of defenders. Here, Barkley leads the way with 89% ahead of James and Gotze (both 87%).
Perhaps his biggest strength lies in his dribbling abilities. Last season, he completed the most take-ons out of all central midfielders in the Premier League and his stats this season remain equally impressive, as his style of play and willingness to beat defenders by running at them with the ball seems to be in his DNA. Here, he is by far the best dribbler with 3.85 per 90 minutes, leaving everyone else looking at his back with second best Gotze at 2.30 per game. He is also the most successful dribbler having completed 54.44% of his attempted take-ons, which makes him an extremely dangerous player in 1 on 1 situations. James is second best with only half of his dribbles successful, but the Real Madrid midfielder also completes considerably less dribbles per game than Barkley (1.07).
In terms of fouls suffered, Barkley draws 1.57 fouls a game, which is less than Koke (1.67), James (1.89) and Calhanoglu (2.05). That is a relatively low number for the Everton player, considering his style of play and his tendency of running at defenders. This can be due to the fact that Barkley does most of his dribbles while on the run, and given his high success in the discipline, he is often gone before the foul can be made. His build also makes him a strong player and tough to bring down on the floor. He is also not a type of player who looks for fouls, he looks for the shortest route to the goal.
The second stats comparison will examine Barkley’s defensive attributes and to see how good they are, he will come up against some of the best young central and central defensive midfielders in the world, rather than the attacking ones. His rivals will be Ilkay Gundogan from Borussia Dortmund; Paul Pogba, the 2013 Golden Boy award winner and arguably the most pursued young player in the world; Marco Verratti, the young Italian from PSG and Christoph Kramer, World Cup winner and defensive midfielder of Borussia Monchengladbach.
We can see from his stats that Barkley is certainly not a defensive midfielder in his nature, but he is also not afraid to stick in for the team, challenge others for the ball and he is not shy of duels. The Toffees player has contributed to the defensive effort with 1.18 tackles won every game, not a bad number for a central midfielder but he is behind Pogba (2.19), Verratti (2.01) and Kramer (2.52) in this aspect of the game.
On the other hand, he is quite prolific in his challenges, winning 1.26 aerial duels, which is almost as much as Kramer (1.29) with Pogba leading the way (1.79). He is also successful in 51.61% of duels, which is understandable given his physical stature. Only Pogba (65.85%) has a higher success rate. As previously mentioned, Barkley has great distribution and a sharp eye for a correct pass once he wins the ball back, usually to set up a quick counter. His 89% pass completion is second best only to Verratti who has a remarkable 92% completion.
One aspect of his game Barkley still can work on is reading the game of the opposing team. He has managed only 0.39 interceptions per game this season and his last season’s stats weren’t astonishing either with 0.89. Compare Barkley’s numbers to the ones of Kramer (3.23) or Gundogan (1.79) and it is easy to see the England man has reserves in this category.
The 21 year old does show his maturity in another way however, he commits the least fouls of all five midfielders. Of course he attempts the second least tackles and it is often up to Barry and McCarthy who hold behind the England man to break down the oppositions game with tactical fouls and strong challenges, but Barkley 0.86 committed fouls per game suggest he is a patient player who doesn’t needlessly dive into tackles.
At 21, Barkley is still in the early stages of his development and career, but having lit up the Premier League at this age does give a hint at the potential and the future that could await him. It was Barkley’s Liverpool rival Raheem Sterling who had won Europe’s Golden Boy Award 2014, but the 21 year old should not despair. He still has much to learn, but having come up against Europe’s most talented midfielders, he certainly didn’t fall short. At this stage of his career, it is important for him to get game time and playing in European competitions with Everton can only benefit him. Manchester City have shown interest in the midfielder during the summer but were drawn away with Everton’s asking price. The best Barkley can do now is to stay and evolve at Goodison Park and learn from Martinez, with the talent and skill he has, he will have plenty of offers from top clubs in the future. But to extract his potential to its full extent, he needs to play, which is exactly what he is doing at Everton now.