Ross Barkley’s Villa Situation
Ross Barkley didn’t exactly cut a happy figure as he kicked a water bottle after being substituted off on the 78th minute against Arsenal last weekend. Since the loanee midfielder’s return from injury at Manchester City last month, he’s served-up a mixed patch of form for Aston Villa.
The disappointing defeat to West Ham, was the second consecutive game in which Villa seemed overrun and unable to create chances as freely as earlier in the season. Many factors could have contributed to this, including potential long-term effects of the coronavirus outbreak, a packed few weeks of fixtures and the lack of rotation leading to tired legs. However, when the creative flow starts to be restricted, you must look at those in the side that carry the attacking responsibility.
The Grealish-Barkley partnership looked promising at the start of the season. The connection between the pair against Liverpool and Arsenal in particular was telepathic at times, with unpredictable running lines and clever passing pulling both defenses apart. They made Villa easy on the eye again and Barkley’s signing seemed like a coup. With Barkley now also occupying the opposition manager’s thoughts, you also got a better Grealish, as he now had more room to operate and a top class player to scheme with.
Villa supporters were soon contemplating what kind of transfer fee would be involved in terms of snagging Barkley on a permanent in the summer.
Bar Barkley’s headed goal from a Grealish cross against Southampton, their link-up has dulled somewhat in recent weeks though. There’s only been flashes of the superior football that they’re capable of together.
The key reason surely boils down to the fact that Barkley has needed matches to regain his rhythm and sharpness, after two months out. You’ve also got to factor in that the midfielder, once back from injury, was unable to train with his teammates due to their Coronavirus isolation period.
The connection between Barkley and Grealish (and Ollie Watkins), is built through regular work on the training pitch, a necessity that has been denied for large periods over the last few weeks, as Barkley was forced to train on his own for 10 days upon his return from injury. Most managers and players normally say that five or six games are required to get up to speed – however with a seven game lay-off and an extended period to return to his usual calibre, Barkley’s early progress is in danger of being overshadowed.
Dean Smith admitted that “it’s been difficult for him” but promisingly added that “he’s certainly getting up to speed where he was before he got injured.”
The connection is a key facet to the full potential of Villa’s system and as the recent Southampton game showed, the duo can be game changing, even in a match with few chances.
“When top players play with each other, you can see the link they get, hence Jack’s ball for Ross,” Smith noted after that game. The creativity this link produces perhaps the biggest change to the style of play from the last campaign.
The team’s first full week of training for a while, between the Arsenal and upcoming Brighton game, will have certainly benefitted Barkley.
It could be argued that greater rotation in the side (including earlier substitution in-game), would have led to a fresher, fitter Barkley rather than the jaded version we’ve seen of late. Whilst Dean Smith evidently doesn’t favour this approach, he has adapted well to Barkley being out of the squad before. El Ghazi and Traoré began to shine when given game time; this was halted rather abruptly when Barkley returned. By accepting his fitness limitations, Smith can cater to the recovery and conditioning time Barkley needs, whilst keeping his wingers sharper than they’ve been in recent cameos.
It’s interesting to consider that with Barkley starting, Villa have lost 6 from 11 (including the Brighton game in which he went off injured in the opening minutes). Without him, it’s just 2 in 9. In his absence, El Ghazi and Traoré scored a combined nine goals; Ross may be a quality player, but there is life in the squad without him.
It would also give Morgan Sanson a chance to prove his worth. A brief introduction when chasing the game is not the ideal start but as he becomes more integrated into the squad, Smith will have a greater understanding of what the Frenchman offers to Villa’s midfield. Having another option from the bench in Barkley’s role may allow the Scouser to be more adventurous, knowing that he does not have to pace himself over an entire game.
Villa Sale Still on Below
As has been said throughout his time at Villa Park, the main factor as to whether Ross Barkley is at the club next season is the transfer fee that the ever-changing management at Chelsea demand. The departure of Lampard may work in Villa’s favour in that respect, as the Bundesliga-forged Thomas Tuchel finds himself with a squad studded with talents such as Kai Havertz and Timo Werner.
If part of Barkley’s move to Villa was for the player to make a last ditch attempt to get into the England Euros squad, then his time out from his recent injury may have put pay to that aim. It would take nothing short of Barkley firing Villa into the Champions League, with a series of jaw-dropping displays in the upcoming months, to have any chance of him winning favour with Gareth Southgate (over to you, Ross…).
However, if the relationship between him and Grealish does not hit the heights of earlier in the season, Villa may actually cool their interest in him, especially considering his injury-prone nature. Sanson certainly was an advance purchase in terms of covering any Barkley absence – short or long term – and giving the club an alternative to paying any silly transfer fee, ala the £40m for Barkley quoted in some media earlier in the week.
Unlike Grealish, Barkley has only proven himself in one position within Smith’s system so far. If he becomes a limitation, rather than a boost in this role, Smith will need to be more ruthless with his selection. This has not been the case to any significant extent so far, but good form in football is difficult to build and easy to lose.
Smith still holds Barkley in high esteem (and obviously Villa want a return on his sizeable wages), but there is the risk that he’ll become a luxury player, a creative spark that offers little else. If he fails to reach that benchmark that he set prior to his injury, he may become too one-dimensional, without the dynamism and adaptability required to be a long-term member of the midfield.
He’s made a significant contribution but there is no place for sentimentalism in the Premier League. Without consistency, a marquee name player with their transfer fee and wage expenditure is not good business.
Barkley is still one of the better players in the side, but for Villa to reach their goals and new ambition, all cylinders need to be firing.
It’s certainly an interesting subplot to Villa’s season and one that is directly linked to how successful Villa ultimately will be this season.