By Paddy Boyland
With little over five minutes left on the clock at Goodison on Sunday, Ross Barkley elicited applause for chasing down a ball in the Leicester right-back slot.
In isolation, the aforementioned piece of play was far from significant- runs such as these are, after all, commonplace over the course of a normal 90-minute match- but the reaction from the Old Lady was telling. Barkley, a player not usually associated with such endeavour, was showing something new as far as his overall game was concerned- and the crowd was responding to it.
In many ways, it served as another tangible sign of the progress the Wavertree midfielder has been making over the past six months. Not only is he now creating chances more regularly- he’s made the most opportunities of any English player this season- but he’s also fitter, leaner and far more active in general play. Unlike before, Barkley is also a prominent part of Everton’s defensive structure at set-pieces and can often be seen clearing the ball from danger.
Indeed, all evidence suggests that- whichever metric you care to use- under Ronald Koeman, his development has accelerated to the point where he’s currently one of the best attacking midfielders in the league.
And that’s why it was even more galling when former Blue Leon Osman told the BBC last week that his former teammate’s progress had been negligible since his breakthrough back in 2011.
Osman said: “He’s been playing in the first-team since he was 17-18. That’s a long time to have been playing in the Premier League and not kicked on, and not made that next step. It’s worrying that he’s still being talked about as a young player and ‘give him time’.”
While the retired midfielder’s words didn’t exactly ring true, they did at the very least paint the picture of a talent that still divides opinion; albeit wrongly if you consider Koeman’s recent influence and the steps taken in 2017.
After a poor end to 2015/16 for the 23-year-old, the Dutchman’s arrival didn’t immediately have the desired effect where Barkley was concerned. A litany of basic errors resulted in him being hauled off at half-time in the 3-0 victory over Sunderland in September, and then dropped altogether for the trip to face Manchester City a few weeks later. The player hadn’t yet earned the trust of his manager.
Under the ex-Saints manager’s canny tutelage, though, Barkley swiftly improved. While some questioned the wisdom of Koeman’s public calls for more consistency from his creator-in-chief, what has since followed has validated the Dutchman’s ‘tough love’ approach.
At one point, the midfielder’s very career at the top level was deemed to be on the line. Not now. Not under Koeman.
That barely six months later we find ourselves in a situation where Barkley, with a year left to run on his current contract, may well depart for Champions League-bound Tottenham tells us everything we need to know as to how well he’s done recently. Suitors are queuing up for someone who was almost completely written off pre-Koeman, and rightly so.
It’s a testament to the work done by the Barcelona icon that Barkley’s stock in the game remains as high as it is, but such form has the potential to provide a significant summer headache for the Blues hierarchy.
Listening to Koeman today, it’s far from certain that the Academy graduate will be at the club next season.
“I spoke to Ross several weeks ago and he mentioned his ambition, Champions League, and I told him I have the same ambition,” the Dutchman replied when asked about Barkley’s contractual situation.
“We’re going in a good direction and he is a key player, he is a kid of the club, a kid of the town and in my opinion, there is no better place for him to continue.”
Such a move would, on one level, no doubt be extremely tempting for the 23-year-old. Opportunities to play in Europe’s premier club competition don’t always present themselves as readily as this. If he doesn’t commit to a new deal, he’ll be sold- and probably at a lower fee at that.
But regardless of Spurs’ interest, Barkley’s departure shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. Just as the player himself has made obvious progress this season, so too have Everton as a club on and off the pitch. Consecutive 11th place finishes under Roberto Martinez have been replaced by a concerted push for the top six in just Koeman’s first campaign in charge. A new stadium is in the pipeline, improved commercial deals are being signed and ambitious targets drawn up. It’s clear that the wheels of change *are* already in motion at L4.
And that’s why, taking into account Koeman’s impressive handling of his young charge and the bold new dawn in L4, Barkley would be foolish to leave his boyhood club at present.
In fact, it’s perhaps the only way the lifelong Evertonian can guarantee that his 2017 renaissance continues at all.