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The progression of Harvey Barnes: another rough diamond sparkling for Leicester City

Harvey Barnes
(Image credit: PA Images)

Harvey Barnes was reflecting upon Leicester’s victory over Liverpool and their growing habit of upsetting their supposed superiors. “This year we’ve been really good against the top teams,” he said on Saturday. He wasn’t wrong, but his use of the plural may have been a display of modesty. This year, he’s been really good against the top teams.

Barnes eviscerated Liverpool with his pace in Leicester’s late onslaught, winning the free kick for their first goal, scoring their third. He had tormented Chelsea with his speed in Frank Lampard’s final league game in charge. He had scored an equaliser against Manchester United on Boxing Day. He had exuded counter-attacking menace in the wins at Manchester City and Tottenham.

He has taken a seismic step forward. Last season, he scored seven goals, only one against a top-eight finisher. Only one of his assists came against the elite. This year, he is Leicester’s top scorer in open play. He has emerged as a constant threat, a man who eases the burden on Jamie Vardy and can enable Leicester to win without him. If his development reflects well upon both him and Brendan Rodgers, his annual improvement amounts to a yearly habit.

Welcome to the four stages of Harvey Barnes; five, perhaps, if his 2016-17 loan at MK Dons has factored in. But in 2017-18, he was borrowed by Barnsley. They ended up being relegated but were out of the drop zone when Leicester recalled Barnes. He had scored five goals and created four more in half a season. In a team with a small budget, he was a good Championship player. 

The following season, he was loaned to West Bromwich Albion. Again, he did too well for his temporary employers’ liking and the move was terminated in January. By that stage, Barnes had nine goals and six assists. He had scored against eventual champions Norwich and in the demolition of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds. He had formed part of a fearsome front four with Dwight Gayle, Jay Rodriguez and Matt Phillips. He was a very good Championship player.

Then 2019-20 marked another step forward. He had featured regularly in the second half of the previous campaign for Leicester, but last season was when he became a good Premier League player. Now, and while such assessments are obviously subjective, he has graduated to the next bracket up, of the very good Premier League players. It could be measured in statistics, but also in general feel: he feels better, more of a threat, a more regular match-winner, a winger more likely to trouble top teams. Speak of Leicester and Barnes is less of a subplot, more of a central character.

At 23, he is young, but no prodigy. He is older than Phil Foden, Mason Greenwood and Callum Hudson-Odoi, who have felt earmarked for greatness from early ages. He is only a few weeks younger than Marcus Rashford, who was propelled to prominence five years ago. Barnes’ emergence has been more gradual. He did not arrive fully-formed but has advanced, incrementally but impressively.

There is something Leicester-esque about it. Arguably James Maddison has followed a similar trajectory, but with more time in League One and a stint in the Scottish Premier League as well. Neither is an extraordinary outlier like Vardy, going from non-league to Premier League champion, but each should be a role model for younger players in the Championship and League One. Endless improvement can open up boundless possibilities.

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Richard Jolly
Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.