There have been many false dawns in Ross Barkley’s fledgling career to date, but under Ronald Koeman, Everton’s ‘diamond’ may be finally starting to develop the consistency needed to excel at the top level of the game.
Against Palace, there were glimpses of the player of 2015; an exciting, on-the-front-foot midfielder unafraid to carry the ball box-to-box, commit players and strike at goal. He was the man who knitted all of the Blues’ best play together at Selhurst Park; the creator-in-chief, if you like, and, more importantly, Man of the Match on a day when many others in yellow also shone.
In isolation, the performance- arguably his best of the season to date- would have been a minor step forward for a player whose form has fluctuated erratically over the past 18 months, but coupled with decisive showings against Manchester City- where he assisted two goals- Hull and Southampton, there is a growing sense that progress is being made week by week.
For so long, Barkley’s prodigious talent had been far too affected by a fragile mentality symbolised best by the now infamous conversation had between club captain Phil Jagielka and the Wavertee-born midfielder at half-time in the FA Cup semi-final defeat against Manchester United last April.
Back then, only a timely intervention from the Blues skipper saved Barkley from the type of creeping doubts that have plagued his form at times. An improved second-half performance ensued, but Everton supporters were given a crucial glimpse into just how much criticism can affect his play.
Now, though, the importance of consistency has been drummed into the 23-year-old by Koeman to such an extent that he’s aware that there is simply no room for failure.
The presence of teenage attacker Ademola Lookman and the more defensive-oriented Morgan Schneiderlin on the bench at Selhurst Park is testament to the growing depth in the Everton squad. Indeed, Barkley need only look at the isolation and subsequent departure of a similarly talented figure in Gerard Deulofeu to know that flaky performances will not be tolerated by the new Everton regime.
Tellingly, Barkley may have flittered in and out of the team as he’s strived to meet the levels expected by the ex-Saints manager, but he has returned all the stronger for it- and is without a doubt deserving of his place on current form.
Sure, there have been peaks and troughs- his half-time substitution at Sunderland is one such moment that springs to mind- but Koeman’s tough love seems to be succeeding where Roberto Martinez’s softly-softly approach failed if Barkley’s recent form is anything to go by.
On the face of it, the emergence of Tom Davies as Everton’s newest academy graduate seems to have provided him with a fresh impetus. Often the junior member in a midfield containing the experienced heads of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, it looks for all intents and purposes that Barkley is now taking on extra responsibility as he aims to help nurture the latest talent off the Finch Farm production line.
His role in the second goal against Southampton was a case in point. Picking the ball up close to the half-way line, Barkley coordinated the entirety of the move that led to Maya Yoshida hauling down Enner Valencia from deep, exchanging passes with a sequence of teammates before quickening the approach once his probing had spotted an area of weakness in the opposition ranks.
With Davies providing energy and legs from his central midfield role and Kevin Mirallas asked to play just off Romelu Lukaku in Koeman’s 3-5-2 formation, ‘Rosco’ has been recast as a typical No.8 of late- which is arguably the position which suits him most given his skill-set. Lacking the footballing intelligence to play from the left and link with an overlapping full-back in a ‘Pienaar role’ and the natural instinct of a No.10 such as David Silva, it is no surprise that the slight change in position has proved to be one of the catalysts for the promising upturn in form.
Of course, there’s still some way to go before a full Barkley renaissance can be heralded. He need only look at Dele Alli’s output in terms of goals and assists to understand what’s needed to catch the eye of England scouts, for example.
But step by step, Koeman edges closer to unlocking the full potential of a player who once promised to take the league by storm.
In that sense, a brave new dawn may be just around the corner for Everton’s great hope.