Barkley has found a way to fit into Sarri system
There is perhaps no group of players so used to adapting themselves to the ways of a new manager as those at Chelsea, where the only consistent philosophy of the Roman Abramovich years has been one of perpetual revolution. But even by their turbulent standards this season has been one that has brought significant change. Everything is different under Maurizio Sarri.
Eden Hazard is trusted to be the left-sided floating No 10 he has always wanted to be. César Azpilicueta has gone from centre-back to right-back. N'Golo Kanté thrusts forward from midfield rather than shielding the defence. And Ross Barkley gets on the pitch.
The turnaround in the 24-year-old's fortunes has been dramatic. Last season he was a spare part, an unwanted signing, the jumper given to Antonio Conte by an aunt, which he feels he cannot get rid of but gets out only when it is really cold and everything else is in the wash. "It's not simple," Conte said scathingly in January after a 2-1 Carabao Cup exit at Arsenal , "especially when on the bench the only substitute is Ross Barkley."
Conte had lost his temper with him during the semi-final second leg over the length of time it had taken Barkley to prepare himself to come on after Willian had picked up a first-half injury, an incident that threatened to become emblematic of the Englishman's career: a player with all the talent, all the equipment, but somehow just not quite ready to take his chance.
Yet this season, the immense potential of Barkley is perhaps finally beginning to be transformed into something more substantive. He has played just 391 minutes, so it is still very early days - and Everton fans will point out that they saw plenty of flickerings - but already he has three goals and three assists. And it is this that is likely to make him key to Chelsea mounting a sustained title challenge.
Amid their unbeaten start to the season, one concern stood out for Sarri's side. It was apparent in the early stages of the 2-2 draw against Manchester United two weeks ago. Twice with the score at 0-0, Hazard worked positions on the left side of the box. The first time he cut the ball back for Kanté, who stabbed the ball unconvincingly goalwards, seemingly attempting an impossible one-two amid a crowd. Wonderful defensive midfielder that he is, Kanté lacks goalscoring instinct: he has 11 league goals in a seven-year career.
Then Hazard, after a clever dart, squared across goal, only to find that neither Álvaro Morata nor any midfielder had anticipated the pass, despite the fact that after Hazard had made the run there was realistically only one place he could deliver a dangerous ball. The line-up with which Sarri started the season offered control but a lack of goals from the centre. There was no equivalent of Marek Hamsik bursting forward from midfield and no centre-forward in form.
Without goals from the centre-forward or midfield, there is only so far any side can go. Perhaps Hazard can reach the 40-goal target Sarri has set for him but it would be much easier if he were not the only threat opponents have to deal with. That's why Barkley is so valuable.
He has never been exactly prolific over his career - just 28 league goals to date - but Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and Kanté have only 38 over their careers between them. That Barkley has scored in each of his last three games for Chelsea is not a coincidence. But nor is it a coincidence that Sarri has not started Barkley against either Liverpool or United.
He presumably sees Kovacic as the safer option, although at the moment that may simply be an issue of familiarity. Certainly there is little to support a view that Barkley is somehow unreliable or untrustworthy in possession: his pass success rate is lower than Kovacic's but is still 92 per cent, the second highest at the club and the fifth highest in the league.
Factor in the detail that Barkley has three assists to Kovacic's one and, although there is a small sample size and the nature and condition of the opposition has to be taken into account, there is an argument Barkley's passes hurt the opposition more.
What the 92 per cent figure clearly suggests is that Barkley has become more judicious in his pass selection. That is a significant leap from a career average of 85.2 per cent, one that can only partly be explained by the possession-based nature of Sarri-ball. The suggestion is that there is a maturity about him now and he no longer feels the need to play the killer pass at every touch.
The other metric in which there has been a significant improvement is in distance run. Even to the naked eye, Barkley looks sleeker than in the past, and the stats show he is running on average 1.5km per 90 minutes further than in his Everton days. Sarri has been working individually with Barkley to improve his tactical understanding and clearly feels progress has been made. "He has improved the defensive phase," the manager said after last Sunday's 4-0 win at Burnley . "Now I think Ross is complete."
A capacity to fit the system is essential, of course, but it is the goals he brings and his capacity to ease the burden on Hazard that make Barkley vital to Chelsea.
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