Ross Barkley approaches 2021 at Aston Villa with the perfect platform to finally fulfil the rich potential that has marked him out as one of English football’s great natural talents of the last decade.
Barkley, who recently turned 27, produced a series of outstanding displays at the start of his loan move to Villa Park from Chelsea before being struck down by a hamstring injury in the first minute of the home defeat by Brighton on 21 November.
In so many ways this is Barkley’s career in microcosm, a player of great gifts who has sparked spectacularly at Everton, Chelsea and Villa without ever fully igniting on a consistent basis, stalled just as he was producing his finest form.
Barkley, now on course to return after his injury, has reached a defining point in his career after leaving the Premier League-title chasing ambitions of Chelsea for a loan spell at a club that avoided relegation on the final day of last season and with a place in England’s Euro 2020 squad at stake.
Is it now or never for Barkley?
Barkley was earmarked for great things when emerging in Everton’s junior ranks, overcoming a serious broken leg sustained on England under-19 duty in October 2010 to make his debut aged 17 years and 258 days against Queens Park Rangers on the opening day of the 2011-12 season.
He made 18 appearances under manager David Moyes over the next two seasons, and had loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United, before flourishing under the free-spirited man management of Roberto Martinez.
Barkley will be hoping the similar approach of Villa manager Dean Smith and his partnership with Jack Grealish can be the catalyst to reach the heights so many have predicted for so long.
Martinez, no stranger to hyperbole, likened him to the great Germany midfielder Michael Ballack while Leon Osman, who started 33 games alongside Barkley for Everton, says the Catalan’s positive approach suited Barkley’s talent and temperament.
Osman told BBC Sport: “Ross is at his best when he is completely backed and trusted by a manager.
“He can then go out and express himself without feeling a mistake might find him out of the team. I think he enjoys having that confidence in his relationship with the manager then having the ability and freedom to express himself.
“Roberto’s style was working the team shape but then wanting individuals to have a go at the opposition. When we had the likes of Ross, Gerard Deulofeu, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas it was about finding them in the right areas of the field and letting them express themselves to unlock the door.
“Ross was a beneficiary but he was a beneficiary because he had the ability to do it.”
Barkley’s decision-making as well as consistency have been criticisms throughout his career, but Osman is a sympathetic voice.
“As with any young player, and I only played with him as a young player, they have the ability to light up a stadium and frustrate in equal measure,” says Osman. “That’s not just Ross Barkley. It’s young players in general.
“Some games he lit the place up with his ability to keep the ball in tight places, the fantastic goals he could score, but what Ross did in his time at Everton was learn to be more consistent and that is why a club like Chelsea wanted him.”
Is Smith the manager for Barkley?
Barkley has all the tools of the modern midfielder – powerful physical presence, athleticism and a rare talent as a creator and scorer of goals – but still needs to make that final leap.
Osman believes Smith’s man-management and the creative spark with Grealish could be the combination to suit Barkley.
He said: “Dean Smith knows that in Jack and Ross he has exceptional talents. You need them to try things, to express themselves. You don’t want them to be worried about giving the ball away otherwise you’ll take away a lot of what makes them very good players.
“Ross has had a very good career so far but I think with a good run of games, which I’d expect him to have, and with a manager who seems to have faith in him you will see more consistently top performances.”
Barkley’s adventurous style rarely seemed to win favour with Ronald Koeman when he replaced Martinez as Everton manager for the 2016-17 campaign.
This was to be Barkley’s final full season at his beloved Everton, a serious hamstring injury delaying a £15m move to Chelsea until January 2018, although he overcame the fractious relationship with Koeman to score six goals and provide eight assists in 39 games as the Toffees qualified for Europe.
Barkley only figured in four games under Chelsea manager Antonio Conte – a total of 208 minutes – a seemingly uneasy fit, even feeling the rough edge of his tongue on his debut when the Italian appeared unhappy with his readiness to come on as substitute for Willian in a Carabao Cup semi-final at Arsenal.
He fared better under Maurizio Sarri, securing a Europa League winners’ medal and playing 48 games, scoring six goals, before figuring in 31 games and scoring five times under Frank Lampard last season.
BBC Sport pundit Alan Shearer is another admirer who believes Smith and Villa could finally offer Barkley the perfect platform to fulfil his potential.
He said: “Ross seems to have found a system that suits him and a manager who wants to play him. This is exactly what he needs.
“He now needs to find the consistency that has been lacking in his game because this is a crucial stage of his career. Ross has been spoken about in glowing terms since he was very young but he is 27 now and needs to deliver on that potential.
“At his best he is match-winner and Villa is a great platform for him.”
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A key man for England?
Barkley’s England career has been a similarly stop-start affair, 33 caps won with six goals scored since making his debut in September 2013 against Moldova, the last coming against Bulgaria in October 2019.
England manager Gareth Southgate has always spoken highly of Barkley but his area of expertise is suddenly over-crowded with team-mate Grealish, Manchester City’s Phil Foden and Chelsea’s Mason Mount in front of him and Leicester City’s James Maddison on the margins.
If he is to revive his England career in time for the Euros, now is the time – but Osman has faith in Barkley to achieve that aim.
“If he continues to do as he has been doing then there is every chance he will be in the England squad in the summer,” said Osman. “He made a very brave decision to leave Chelsea and play regular Premier League football to show he is deserving of his place in the England squad.
“He’s got an awful lot of football ahead of him.”