England fans were left flabbergasted last week when Ross Barkley’s captivating display against Ecuador in a World Cup warm-up fixture was met by a surprisingly grumpy response from Roy Hodgson. “I’m not prepared to address your obsession with Ross Barkley,” said the Three Lions manager. “He lost the ball an awful lot of times as well. If he’s going to be the player we want him to be, he has to make better decisions of when he turns with the ball.”
It’s true that the England international appeared almost too daring in the final third at times and some of his decision-making cost the Three Lions further opportunities at goal. But equally, he was by far our most creative and potent threat on the counter-attack – to make a goal-scoring omelette of classy delight, you have to break a few eggs along the way. Rather tellingly, the 20 year-old has created more chances, five, than any of his team-mates during England’s three warm-up friendlies.
In my opinion, Barkley should be praised rather than publicly discredited for taking more responsibility in attack against Ecuador than the vast majority of his team-mates, despite it being his full international debut.
In a bid to reassure England fans that he hadn’t been watching a different Ross Barkley last Wednesday, Hodgson revealed a day later; “I was anxious to play down the expectations, seen too many young players lifted to the stars, the new Keegan, the new Hoddle, the new Gascoigne, the new Terry, the new Rio, every time someone has a half a good game, they are the new star. We believe in him but people shouldn’t be suggesting our World Cup should be hinging on his performance.”
You can understand Roy Hodgson’s concern. After an October World Cup qualifier, the open-armed celebration of Andros Townsend following his piledriver strike against Montenegro was draped across every back-page in England, but a matter of months later the 22 year-old is now a prime candidate for the transfer scrapheap at Tottenham, resembling closer the next Adam Johnson than the next Chris Waddle. He’s hardly the first player the English public have lauded with praise and attention far before it’s truly deserved.
But Barkley is of a different breed. Although his youthful swagger and athleticism have shone through this season, it’s his natural class which has been most prevalent. His stunning goal against Norwich City on the opening day of the season, using his weaker foot, showed exceptional technique and contained poignant shades of Wayne Rooney, whilst for the rest of the campaign, the 20 year-old has performed a vital role as the attacking lynchpin at the tip of Everton’s midfield.
In that role, Barkley has demonstrated an intrinsic intelligence that won’t burn out with age. Rather, logic suggests it will set his expiry date as a footballer past the norm. After all, this is a 20 year-old taking a leading part in a 5th-place Premier League side.
Likewise, it’s not as if the midfielder has simply exploded onto the scene without forewarning. In 2011, Martin Keown branded Barkley ‘one of the best players we’ll ever see in this country’ and former Everton team-mate Tim Cahill shared a similar point of view, dubbing him the most talented footballer he’s ever worked with. In truth, murmurings of Barkley’s talent have been bubbling under the surface of English football for some time and he would have set the Premier League stage alight at an even earlier age had it not been for a leg-break back in 2010.
Furthermore, for an Englishman, the Toffees prodigy’s style is incredibly unique. Whereas his Three Lions midfield forbearers have lacked mobility and fluency, especially with the ball at their feet, Barkley’s 2.4 dribbles per match this season is the eighth-best return in the Premier League. Most importantly, these mazy runs at the opposition have most commonly come through the centre of the pitch, an area where most footballers – but especially young English ones – are demanded not to take risks.
That is why Barkley should be starting for England in Brazil. Admittedly, his customary position as a No.10 will expectedly be filled by the seemingly un-droppable Wayne Rooney, but the rest of the world is now accustomed to the ways, strengths and weaknesses of the Manchester United star.
The Evertonian on the other hand is privy to the benefits of relative anonymity – combine that with the fact he’s one of the more unorthodox midfielders we’ve produced for many-a-year, with an unusual directness that doesn’t include pointless 70-yard through-balls to an isolated striker, and the old adages of ‘secret weapon’ and ‘World Cup wildcard’ come to mind. Barkley is different; he’s exotic, exciting and risk-taking; his technique verges on perfection, yet it is juxtaposed by a rampant, robust aggression, a determination to physically impose himself whilst continually moving towards goal.
Most importantly, following his sensational breakthrough campaign at Goodison, right now Barkley is completely fearless of expectations and the opposition. Nobody knows what he’s capable of, not even himself – but that is something Hodgson should be embracing in its entirety, not shying away from.