The least desirable kind of pressure is the comparisons to other players, especially those who hold a strong position in the game. Ross Barkley may be a pivotal figure for England in the near future, but the last thing he needs is to be compared to Steven Gerrard, or even Paul Gascoigne.
The temptation is there. We like running with the idea that we’ve unearthed a new prodigy. How many times do those early hopes actually go on to be fulfilled? Barkley is in his first full season in the Premier League, regularly part of the starting XI at Everton. It’s far too soon for him to be thinking about a move to one of the bigger clubs in the league; Manchester United would certainly love a player of his talent in their midfield. But even more so it’s important to treat his development with the kind of husbandry that will see rewards well into the future.
The approaching World Cup is the bridge between the last generation and the next for England. Regardless of the group, Roy Hodgson doesn’t have a team capable of winning the competition – and that’s completely ignoring all the other factors preventing such a feat. Preparation, however, should go in to setting up the next wave of talent for the European Championship in France. Barkley will hopefully be a key figure for England at that point.
But as well as avoiding the dangerous temptation of comparing Barkley to Gerrard, there is also the likelihood of never shaking a tactical setup that clearly hasn’t worked. We still don’t know what England’s best formation is. Does Hodgson play Wayne Rooney as the lone forward or drop him deeper to help the midfield? One way or another there’s a sacrifice. England don’t have another striker as good as the Manchester United forward. Using Barkley as a like-for-like in the current setup is a waste of not only his talents but others too.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Luke Shaw, Daniel Sturridge, and a handful of others will be important names in the England team in the future. Bringing Barkley into the equation with those players allows for a far more attractive and attacking brand of football. They’re all capable of producing far better performances than what we’ve seen in previous years under various England managers.
Barkley needs to be managed to his own strengths, not to cater for the loss of someone else. Roberto Martinez is doing a fantastic job with him. Barkley is catching the eye with his performances, but the Everton manager is also protecting the youngster from the pitfalls that can derail players such as him. Above all, he’s in the right environment to flourish.
The “Golden Generation” was a colossal failure for England. This is, however, an opportunity to break away from that. Rooney is one of England’s best and will be part of the team for a few more tournaments. Hodgson must figure out how best to use Rooney with the young players who will be regulars in the team in the future. Replicating what England have now is pointless. Barkley may have traits of players like Gerrard and Gascoigne, but pigeonholing him in such a way will do very little good for him and England.