Sunday 20 January 2019

Barkley's baptism of fire proves that he still has plenty to learn

Chelsea’s Ross Barkley. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters
Chelsea’s Ross Barkley. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters

Jonathan Liew

Antonio Conte was already furious at Ross Barkley, even though he hadn't even stepped on to the pitch yet. Barkley was simply trotting up and down the touchline in his substitute's bib, minding his own business, oblivious to the fact that Willian was injured and Conte wanted to bring him on.

There have probably been less auspicious starts to a Chelsea career, but it's hard to think of many off hand. Conte is not, famously, a man who enjoys being made to wait.

And yet, you suspect Barkley didn't mind too much. When all you have known is football, eight months is a long time to go without it.

That is the time that Barkley has spent recovering from a hamstring injury, since he last took the field in a senior game; ironically at this very stadium, against this very opposition, as an early substitute.

Since which, of course, he has swapped the bright lights of Merseyside for the traffic jams and overpriced sandwiches of London.

Barkley's move from Everton to Chelsea was about as low-key as transfers get at this end of the game - a deal struck in the shadow of the Alexis Sanchez/Henrikh Mkhitaryan big top, completed with little fanfare, save from the mayor of Liverpool, who reported the deal to police, alleging that the £15 million (€17m) fee constituted fraud. (Merseyside Police wrote back within days, politely informing the mayor that there was "no evidence that a criminal offence has occurred".)

And so Barkley has been afforded what few players who join a top-six club in the middle of the season get: a little breathing space.

He has had four full weeks of training, 70 minutes in a reserve game, and now this largely quiet hour in a League Cup semi-final. Time to find his feet. More pertinently, time for his team-mates to find them.

This, perhaps, is the more salient point. For if we learned anything from Barkley's cameo here, it was a reminder that professional footballers are creatures of habit.

Time and again, Barkley positioned himself for a pass, only for Eden Hazard or Marcos Alonso to look up, glance with a certain inadvertent bewilderment at this intruder in their midst, and play the ball elsewhere.

At one point, Barkley tried a first-time volleyed pass as Chelsea sought to break. As Laurent Koscielny cut the ball out, Hazard's frustration was palpable.

The process of adaptation, even at this level, is gradual. As Barkley begins to integrate himself, his colleagues will begin to discover the contours of his game, the size and shape of his talents. The runs he likes to make. Whether he prefers the ball to feet, or on the half-turn. Whether to talk to him in the dressing-room right before a game, or to give him some space. Like all relationships, this one will take time.

The issue for Barkley is that time is not necessarily on his side. It was interesting to see an interview he gave to Sky Sports last week, where he talked about how he envisaged his Chelsea career going.

"At the moment I have a lot of potential," he said. "I am obsessed with improving. I want to get to a level where I am regarded as one of the best, and coming to a club like Chelsea gives me the right platform to improve."

The thing is, Barkley is 24. He has had potential for a good five or six years. It is possible to argue that he is not vastly improved as a player since Roy Hodgson took him to the last World Cup in Brazil. And now, with four months to go until Gareth Southgate names his squad for the next, in Russia, Barkley again finds himself on the cusp of where he wants to be.

When you are playing for a club like Chelsea, you don't get much of a bedding-in period. You have to do your acclimatisation in a harsh and public glare of Premier League six-pointers and Champions League knockout games. You have to do it with the weight of Frank Lampard's No 8 shirt on your back.

The road ahead for Barkley is a long one. Which is all the more reason to get a move on." (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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