Gareth Barry’s League season ended rather anticlimactically: not only did Manchester City fail at the last hurdle to have their name written into European Football’s premier guest list come August, he also limped off against Tottenham with an ankle injury that could jeopardise his World Cup hopes. Whilst I’m not debating his motives behind leaving Aston Villa, I will certainly argue that his productivity – and maybe his confidence – has taken a hit since his move to City. He is perhaps the only England international to perform better for his country than for his club.
Firstly, it cannot be overstated what a difference a system makes. Barry was Villa’s talisman, the fulcrum of the team. His job was to win tackles, recycle possession, and create attacking opportunities. As with any club with a long serving captain, Barry operated with confidence and authority. If a short pass was ignored for a more difficult option the fans and manager alike would show a little more patience because, after all, this is the creative licence Barry had earned at Villa. Following his move to Eastlands I did not expect sterling performances throughout a debut season but I also didn’t expect such consistent anonymity. Martin O’Neill spoke of his old employee’s campaign in February:
“From what I’ve seen so far, Gareth, who was given the licence to go and play in the manner which he did for us, would have been on the ball a lot more often and would have been allowed his choice of pass more than I see [at] Manchester City.”
Freedom is the primary factor for his less than memorable performances this season. However before I further discriminate against the former Villa skipper I am forced to ask: is he doing what is required by his manager? The short answer is yes. Barry has started 34 matches in the league alone, which is evidence enough that Roberto Mancini believes his selection is justified. Mancini has chosen to employ Barry alongside Nigel De Jong in central midfield. Both are industrious, consistent, and reliable performers. But both are used as anchoring midfielders. And I think the tactical decision of having two defensively responsible central midfielders in a rigid 4-4-2 is symptomatic of Barry’s inability to affect City’s play. He is not afforded the same type of freedom and is not asked to fulfil the same role.
When I watch City I find De Jong and Barry’s combined output is satisfactory at best. I expected Barry to influence forward play far more frequently than he does at present but is this due to the manager’s instructions or the player’s performances? Given his recent consistent run in the England team it would appear that Fabio Capello sees his contribution as valuable. His role for England is to break up play and recycle possession without any of the attacking freedom afforded in previous seasons. Ironically, this is exactly what I have just complained about. Yet alongside a contrasting central midfield partner his contribution is far more evident because, unlike at City, the two do not cancel one another out.
The defensive midfielder’s role for England has proved a showcase for the likes of Nicky Butt in Japan and Owen Hargreaves in Germany. Barry is precariously positioned with either an opportunity to prove his talents on the global stage or to miss out and leave people like me waiting until next season to wonder just how wise it was, purely in terms of enjoying one’s football, swapping Villa for City. If City achieve Champions League football (and they are more likely than Villa in this respect) then Barry, who turns 30 next February, will not care one iota about anything except being selected on a regular basis. After all, who wouldn’t enjoy playing in the Champions League, regardless of role? Both Roberto Mancini and Fabio Capello continue to pick him so maybe I should keep this opinion quiet. But if unspectacular and consistently satisfactory are the prerequisites to being a success in his position then I would back Barry to continue garnering more plaudits on England duty than with City, where his midfield partner does the exact same thing.
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