Chelsea running out of time to reclaim the Ross Barkley they bought

NORWICH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24: Ross Barkley of Chelsea takes on Tom Trybull of Norwich City during the Premier League match between Norwich City and Chelsea FC at Carrow Road on August 24, 2019 in Norwich, United Kingdom. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
NORWICH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24: Ross Barkley of Chelsea takes on Tom Trybull of Norwich City during the Premier League match between Norwich City and Chelsea FC at Carrow Road on August 24, 2019 in Norwich, United Kingdom. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images) /

Once touted as England’s once-in-a-generation talent, Ross Barkley’s time as Chelsea player is prematurely coming to an end.

Ross Barkley made everyone wonder how soon he would outgrow Everton, and where he would take his talents next, after his 35-yard screamer against Manchester City in May 2014 made everyone stop and notice the Toffees’ homegrown starlet. That goal was a distant memory, not on anyone’s mind, five years later at Stamford Bridge, when Barkley came off in the 68′ to a misleadingly warm ovation as Chelsea sought to see out their first home Premier League win of the season.

Ross Barkley’s signing in January 2018 split opinions around Chelsea. Some fans expressed their disapproval of signing Barkley instead of recalling academy graduate Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Others lauded the shrewdness of signing a young English player for only £15 million.

This latter perspective should have been a warning sign. If a player like Barkley is cast in a positive light in large part because of his low price, perhaps his growth over the years had been grossly incomplete.

This was a player who had the ability to score screamers from 30 yards with either foot, smash the ball into the goal from a free kick, take perfect penalties, create chances with outstanding vision and run at the defences with brilliant dribbling skills. All this with the physicality to bulldoze players. He had all the hallmarks to be a perfect player.

Yet in 2017 it was his former teammate, Romelu Lukaku, who was sought after by the biggest clubs in England. Lukaku was a fine player, but the English media would have hyped up as the next Lionel Messi any English player with that description – the kind of hype Lukaku could never have received.

But the big clubs were not desperate for a deal for Barkley, despite him having only a year left on his contract. Nor were Everton putting up much of a fight to keep him.

Injuries played their part in slowing his development, but it was Barkley’s decision-making and on-pitch lapses that had hampered his career. Optimistic fans still believed that under better coaches and with better players at Chelsea he would make the step up. But under three different coaches and three different systems, he is still stuck on those early steps.

Barkley would have been perfect as Antonio Conte’s focal man in a 3-5-2, but Conte saw his lack of fitness and shortcomings and deemed him insufficient for the side.

Barkley had a good preseason and featured regularly under Maurizio Sarri on the left side of a midfield three. But he underperformed more often than not. He was perhaps lucky to get chances via Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s injury struggles, but failed make the most of them apart from a purple patch in October.

After a brilliant 2019 preseason (that pass to Pedro), Barkley found his place in yet another new system. Frank Lampard sets up his teams with three “traditional” midfielders: a deep-lying midfielder, a box-to-box specialist and an advanced playmaker or attacking midfielder. The aim would always be to have two players of each kind to provide depth to compete in four competitions.

Jorginho has cemented his place as the starting deep-lying midfielder, with the very talented and impressive Billy Gilmour showing signs of being his understudy. Both players control the tempo of their team and play the right pass at the right time to the right player.

N’Golo Kante will go down as the best box-to-box player of his time, but his injury struggles have let Mateo Kovacic shine, helping him finally find his feet as a Chelsea player. The pair provide solidarity to the midfield by breaking up plays and continuously running.

The advanced playmaker / attacking midfielder continuously presses the opposition and is tasked with creating chances for himself and the others. He is the most important player of Lampard’s system. Barkley is a natural for this final role. Yet he is playing second fiddle to a Premier League debutante in Mason Mount, despite having years of experience in this league.

Both Mount and Barkley were born with large amounts of talent. But whereas Mount is visibly improving his finishing, movement, passing range, work rate and set piece deliveries over time, Barkley is still incredibly inconsistent and frustrating with his decision making.

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Barkley might still have a place as Mount’s back up if not for Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s impending return from injury. The true flag bearer of Chelsea’s academy, Loftus-Cheek is the kind of midfield gem one does not find easily or routinely anywhere in the world, let alone England or your own academy.

Mason Mount vs. Ruben Loftus-Cheek as the final midfielder will be biggest selection headache for Frank Lampard, with Barkley soon to be just an afterthought. And that is before we even extend the depth chart to Conor Gallagher excelling on loan at Charlton Athletic and Tino Anjorin already developing into the next top prospect.

All Chelsea fans wholeheartedly hope Barkley excels at a new club. There is no reason for any ill feelings. But continued frustration over his great talent not transforming into great performances means his time at this club will come to an end, possibly as soon as January.

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The goal for him in whatever time he has left at Chelsea or wherever he goes next is turning those flashes of brilliance into the brilliant career English football fans have been waiting for since 2014.