Chelsea’s lucky jackpot: The resurgence of Ross Barkley

Under Maurizio Sarri, Ross Barkley seems to found his mojo, and the secret to that lies in shedding the tag of the next big thing.
Art by Charbak Dipta

I completely understand why Antonio Conte spent most of last season sulking around Cobham. He was keen to build on the successes of 2016/17 while the board were content to rest on their laurels and bring in Danny Drinkwater. It wasn’t the former Leicester midfielder that signalled the beginning of the end for the Italian tactician, however. It was the signing of Mersey Messi, Ross Barkley.

It was a strange move. There was simply no place for Barkley in Conte’s 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. The English international’s questionable decision-making and lack of tactical awareness also made it an odd fit. It turns out, though, that the Liverpudlian is a fine fit for Maurizio Sarri’s midfield with his ability to progress the ball and unsettle opponents with his flair and physicality. When Barkley arrived in January, Conte was smart enough to see that Chelsea was building a midfield for his successor.

And Sarri’s midfield is one of the most intriguing in the Premier League. There is Jorginho as the exotic regista and the ongoing project to transform N’Golo Kante into a swashbuckling number eight. But there is also the left-sided midfielder, usually Mateo Kovacic, who gets the joyous task of combining with Eden Hazard. The Croatian seems to be first choice at the moment, but Barkley’s two goals in the last two fixtures could change that.

The Englishman made news earlier this month by telling the press he wishes he would have received the detailed coaching he now gets from Sarri. Everton fans can feel somewhat aggrieved by those comments; if one listens to Nathaniel Chalobah speak of the footballing education he received in Naples while on loan though, it is clear Barkley’s comments were meant more as a compliment to Sarri than a slam on the Toffees’ coaching staff. And Barkley hasn’t just worked on his tactical understanding. He looked incredibly fit coming into preseason; so much so, his teammates started tagging John Cena, the professional wrestler, in their photos of him on social media.

All that time spent studying the game under Sarri and in the gym looks to be paying off, as he earned a recall to the England setup and started its two Nations League. Most headlines about Gareth Southgate’s squad ahead of the matches focused on the new, young members like Jadon Sancho and Mason Mount, but Barkley’s return largely flew under the radar. He hadn’t played for the Three Lions since 2016, and it’s been a disappointing few years for the young man once dubbed the new Paul Gascoigne.

His powerful running and flair excited fans when he burst onto the scene in 2013 as a teenager, winning Everton’s Young Player of the Season and his first England call-up. As the Toffees’ form declined in following seasons, however, so did Barkley’s performances. Turning out for his boyhood club, he felt the weight of expectation and was frequently guilty of trying to do too much. Playing for England, as he had 22 times before, bizarrely turned into a holiday from the pressure of the Merseyside fishbowl. His move to Chelsea last January further relieves him of the stress of being the main man, and it showed against Southampton ahead of the international break.

Barkley started on the left side of midfield and was quickly involved, battling with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg as Chelsea looked to set up shop in Southampton’s half. One thing he offered that Kovacic does not is an aerial threat at corners; he got his head to two near post flick-ons in the first half. The Englishman also offers more of a goal threat than his Croatian teammate. Kovacic has never been a prolific scorer, scoring just 3 since the start of the 2015/16 campaign. Barkley, tops that with 19 strikes in the same period of time. But we’ll talk more about his goalscoring later.

Barkley’s physicality was on display in the 30th minute. The Saints attempted to play the ball out from the back, and he quickly closed down and enveloped Hojbjerg. He emerged with the ball, got his head up, picked out Hazard’s fine run through the middle, and it was 1-0 Chelsea.

It was a devastating blow for the home fans at St. Mary’s. Just minutes before, Danny Ings missed a golden chance following a cross from a marauding Ryan Bertrand. The crowd had responded and urged their team forward. After Hazard’s goal, Manolo Gabbiadini, looking more like Rafi from The League than a professional footballer, tested Kepa from range twice.

Saints fans found a familiar target for their frustration just before half: the referee. Craig Pawson whistled for a foul in Chelsea’s half near the byline and mysteriously placed the ball 10 yards back from the infringement. Bertrand picked up the ball, marched it forward to the correct spot, and angrily slammed it down. Pawson was wrong and knew it, but he could not let that sort of thing go. He booked Southampton’s captain for his show of dissent. Mark Hughes, in typical Mark Hughes fashion, glowered from the sideline and began crafting his post-match comments blaming the referee, the Fates, and phases of the moon for his latest defeat. It was obvious where this match was headed.

If the result wasn’t clear before halftime, Barkley made it certain in the 56th minute with a well-worked set piece goal. He and Willian lined up a free kick about 35 yards out from goal. It quickly became obvious the Brazilian was going to hit it, so Barkley ambled forward to set up next to the wall. Instead of stopping there to jostle with opponents, trying to create half a yard for a Willian rocket, he kept going into an offside position. His gambit became clear as the free kick was lofted to the far post, and Olivier Giroud acrobatically volleyed it to the center for the onrushing (and onside) Barkley to tap in. It was his first goal for Chelsea, and he celebrated accordingly.

Up 2-0, Sarri’s men did what Sarri’s men do: pass. Barkley spent his offseason studying Sarri’s Napoli and understood perfectly what the Italian boss wanted, playing neat one-touch combinations with Jorginho. As Southampton pushed up to pressure them, Chelsea’s number eight would then send the ball into space for Hazard.

The Saints were irritated by the Blues’ ability to move them around with their quick passing and took it out on the little Belgian with a series of “tackles” so cynical they drew laughter from the commentators. Southampton would finish with six yellow cards which should see them receive a tut-tutting from the FA for a failure to control their players. Their frustration is understandable though when you consider they were down two-nil and Gabbiadini was forced to operate as a right wing back. Hughes’s solution was to throw on Shane Long. I quite like Long, but his record of two goals in his last 46 Premier League matches speaks for itself. Kepa Arrizabalaga was forced into two making two fine saves from long-ranges blasts in the last 15 minutes, but it was Alvaro Morata at the end of a 31 pass move who would complete the scoring in stoppage time.

From a statistical perspective Southampton had a decent number of shots (15) and shots on target (6) on Sunday. With slightly improved finishing from Ings, for example, Chelsea might have dropped points. But they didn’t, and that’s down to Ross Barkley.

Ross Barkley doing Ross Barkley things
Ross Barkley doing Ross Barkley things

And he produced another goal when Manchester United came to Stamford Bridge on Saturday. After going a goal down, the Red Devils took a break from kicking Hazard to score two goals. They looked to be heading back to Manchester with all three points until Barkley, who had come on for Kovacic in the 69th minute, scored the late, late equalizer. It wasn’t a spectacular finish; like his goal against Southampton, he simply was in right place to sweep the ball home after some fine work from his teammates.

And that is the key to his resurgence. He does not need to be the next Paul Gascoigne or a local hero shouldering the weight of his team’s performances. He simply needs to be in the right place at the right time. The last few weeks have shown that that is at Chelsea under Sarri’s tutelage.