It was just 10 years ago that Ross Barkley enjoyed a breakout campaign at Roberto Martinez’s Everton, forming a dynamic duo with Romelu Lukaku in attack, racking up 6 goals and 2 assists in 34 Premier League appearances, and leading Everton within touching distance of a Champions League spot. His explosive movement and eye-catching goals from long range drew comparisons to Frank Lampard, and it saw him nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year alongside Luke Shaw, Aaron Ramsey, Daniel Sturridge and Ross Barkley, only for Eden Hazard to come away with the award.
Prior to doing so, however, Barkley was forced to deal with adversity. When he looked set to make his Premier League debut in October 2010, his leg was broken in one place after a collision with Andre Wisdom in an England U-19 match. He nevertheless worked his way back to fitness and joined the first team for training in the summer of 2011, with Tim Cahill heralding him as the most talented footballer that he had worked with.
His debut finally came on August 20, 2011 in Everton’s first home match, playing the full 90 and being named Man of the Match in a 1-0 loss to QPR. He enjoyed a promising start which prompted legendary Arsenal defender Martin Keown to shower him with praise, stating, “Mikel Arteta’s been on the bench because of Ross Barkley. He’s young, but he’ll be one of the best players of the game we’ll ever see in this country.”
However, he would drop out of the line-up, making just two brief Premier League cameos from November onwards, before being loaned out to EFL Championship sides Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United the following campaign. The 2013/14 season would see Barkley’s talent come to the fore, solidifying a starting spot in Everton’s first-team and grabbing the attention of England manager Roy Hodgson.
10 months after earning his maiden England call-up, Barkley was included in their World Cup squad, coming off the bench in the first two games before playing the full 90 in their final match against Costa Rica. He continued his impressive development with the Toffees, racking up 8 goals and 8 assists in 38 appearances in 2015/16, enough to see him selected in the Three Lions’ Euro 2016 squad. At 22 years of age, the future looked bright for the Liverpool native.
He would leave Everton after 13 years, making the move to Chelsea in January 2018, where he would struggle under the weight of expectations and fail to assert himself under Antonio Conte, Maurizio Sarri and Lampard, bouncing around from Aston Villa to Chelsea to Nice, before returning to England after a year abroad and joining Luton Town on a free transfer on August 9, 2023.
Ross the ‘Regista’
Constant injuries have taken a toll on his game, meaning that the explosive vertical runs through the middle that we grew accustomed to at Everton have become far less frequent, but he has nevertheless adapted and emerged as a vital cog in Luton’s midfield. His quick half-turns, close control, dribbling ability and passing range are skillsets that have always been a part of his game. Generally, Rob Edwards sets up Luton in a 3-5-2, with Barkley predominantly occupying left side of a midfield three, as exemplified in his heat map this season.
A regista, or deep-lying playmaker, is regarded as a creative 6 sitting between defense and controlling the game’s tempo as well as recycling possession, exactly the type of midfield player that Barkley has morphed into under Edwards. Perhaps an early indication of his role change was when he was given the #6 shirt at his unveiling.
Previously, Barkley would stand out in terms of his ability to run into space with or without the ball, making him particularly effective in quick transitions and turnovers as his ball-carrying and retention combined with his goal threat made him an important asset in attack. The below sequence predictably ends with Barkley taking the shot from long range and finding the back of the net with a rocket of a shot.
During his stints at Everton, Chelsea and Villa, Barkley would commonly be characterized by aggressive ball carrying and his end product, but at Luton, these explosive runs have become far less commonplace. Under Edwards, Barkley’s playmaking skills and overall vision have been amplified. In the below sequence, we can see how rather than run into space, he waits for his teammates to occupy dangerous positions before playing them through.
Going up against a midfield trio of Declan Rice, Martin Odegaard and Kai Havertz, Barkley ran the show for Luton, grabbing a goal on his 30th birthday to put Luton ahead. However, Havertz would equalize shortly after for Arsenal, whilst Rice’s 97th-minute winner would see the Gunners prevail with a 4-3 victory at Kenilworth Road.
Positional awareness is another part of Barkley’s game that has evolved during his time at Luton. Whereas he made a name for himself as an attacking midfielder at Everton constantly occupying positions in the final third, he has now been forced to transition to a deep-lying role in a Luton side that is accustomed to sitting deep and hitting on the break.
Barkley’s positional awareness comes in handy in the build-up play, taking responsibility in the first phase of possession and showcasing the initiative to dribble out of tight spaces. With his close control and ball-carrying ability, Barkley is skilled at transitioning possession from defense into attack, maneuvering his way out of pressure and filtering the ball towards the likes of Elijah Adebayo, Jacob Brown and Andros Townsend.
In the above example, Barkley receives the ball from the goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski before playing out of pressure, despite being closely marked by Martin Odegaard. All in all, it was arguably the best performance of his Luton career, winning six out of six aerial duels and 11 out of 16 ground duels, completing six out of seven dribbles, registering one key pass, racking up two clearances and two tackles, and winning four fouls.
Last Chance Saloon at Luton?
Luton Town are playing top-flight football for the first time in 31 years, and whilst they currently occupy the relegation zone, they have shown plenty of fight under Rob Edwards, beating Crystal Palace and Everton, taking points off Wolves and Nottingham Forest and coming within inches of securing a historic win against Liverpool only to succumb to a draw. On Saturday, they snapped a three-game losing streak as Ross Barkley found Andros Townsend for the opener within 25 minutes in a 1-0 victory against Newcastle at Kenilworth Road.
If they are to defy the odds and avoid relegation, Barkley will have to sustain his form and fitness and continue his impressive performances for The Hatters. Six years after departing Merseyside, it seems that Barkley has finally put his horrid injury record behind him, growing in confidence and composure in a new position, and he may just have what it takes to lead Luton to an unlikely escape from the drop.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Hugo Pfeiffer / Icon Sport