Some 30 players were named in England’s expanded squad to face the Republic of Ireland, Belgium and Iceland. One of the most creative players in this season’s Premier League was not among them, even though he was a catalytic figure when 2019 became England’s most productive year in front of goal since 1908.
Welcome to the contradictions of Ross Barkley. Perhaps his predicament has been camouflaged by the focus on Jack Grealish, the Aston Villa team-mate who was the architect-in-chief when, for the first time since 1953, the reigning champions conceded seven. Yet Barkley has scored to inflict defeats on two league leaders, in Liverpool and Leicester, while he highlighted what Arsenal lacked in Sunday’s 3-0 triumph at the Emirates Stadium.
Barkley has never really been about the numbers – indeed, it has prompted some criticism of him over the years – but he ranks second only to Kevin de Bruyne for key passes per game and shot-creating actions per 90 minutes this campaign. He stands ninth in divisional the chart for expected assists, sandwiched by De Bruyne and Bruno Fernandes, and ninth for shots per 90 minutes. A less scientific observation is that he is playing really well; perhaps as well as he did in his first flourish under Roberto Martinez at Everton; perhaps better than ever before.
And yet the paradox is that he has found arguably his finest form at a point when England have abolished his position in the team. Barkley was better for England than Chelsea in 2019; he is better again for Villa in 2020 but his role in the national team has been rendered redundant.
There was a sense he had made it work. He scored four goals for his country last autumn. England showed a propensity to run riot, beating Bulgaria 4-0 and 6-0 and Kosovo 5-3 with Barkley and Kosovo 4-0 and Montenegro 7-0 without him.
And then, after an extended break, came Gareth Southgate’s systemic switch. The attacking midfielder in his 4-3-3 was sacrificed for the extra centre-back in a 3-4-3. It represented bad news for James Maddison, Dele Alli, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jesse Lingard and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but, above all, for Barkley. Overlooking him last month, when the squad was selected before the 7-2 thrashing of Liverpool, had a certain logic; now, with proof of form, it seems there is simply no place without a change in shape.
Mason Mount and Phil Foden have been called up this autumn, partly aided by their ability to play as forwards, but come the stiffest tests, the solidity of Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice suggests they are the premier midfield pairing. Barkley may be neither one thing nor another, neither a central midfielder in a duo nor one of the front three.
He is no stranger to being in the wrong place at the wrong time; he was forever being substitute or substituted for Mateo Kovacic in Maurizio Sarri’s sterile Chelsea, invariably the target of Ronald Koeman’s criticisms, miscast as a loanee at Neil Warnock’s Leeds.
And yet the unfortunate element may be that this time, Barkley is in the right place: at club level, anyway. His alliance with Grealish and John McGinn feels a meeting of minds, a gathering of players with complementary skills. He may sense a kindred spirit in Grealish, another who has defied some categorisation, one of the relatively slender band of ball-carrying midfielders who can open games up with his running.
There was a common denominator before they became team-mates. Each was a player Mauricio Pochettino had hoped to sign in his search for a successor to Mousa Dembele – Barkley in January 2018, Grealish in the subsequent summer – and each had some of the skillset to equip him for a formidable task. There was a time, too, when each seemed cases of unrealised potential. But while it is being fulfilled now, it may only be in the claret and blue of Villa.
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