There comes a point when a Ross Barkley run starts to feel like Ross Barkley’s career: rich in promise, low on substance. The signature Barkley burst certainly looks good when it starts. It certainly feels exciting. It definitely feels as if something important is going to happen when he picks up the ball in his own half and sets off on a charge into opposition territory.
Then the wait begins. The momentum stalls. The deeper Barkley goes, the less threatening he looks. One finds oneself willing him on, urging him to pick the right pass, but the moment slips away and by the end nobody is quite sure what that was all about. There was something there, a teasing glimpse of something special, but all that raw talent still feels too vague to make a meaningful impact when it matters.
Barkley was a disappointment during England’s eccentric 5-3 victory against Kosovo on Tuesday. The Chelsea midfielder was heckled by the St Mary’s crowd after selfishly ruining a four-on-three counterattack deep into the second half and the impression was of a player forcing the issue when calm was required, resulting in an uneven performance that raises concerns over his place in Gareth Southgate’s side.
The international break has not gone well for the 25-year-old. Having struggled to pick the lock against a deep Bulgaria defence on Saturday, opponents as open as Kosovo ought to have played into his hands. Barkley was the highest player in England’s midfield three, with Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice mopping up behind him, and he had space all night. The only question was whether he could use it.
The answer will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched Barkley struggle to take games by the scruff of the neck for Chelsea. The contest passed him by for long spells, which had the unfortunate effect of making him try ever more extravagant moves in an attempt to impress Gareth Southgate, and even the penalty he won for Harry Kane came after he had drained the life from an attack by hanging on to the ball for too long.
It gives Southgate a problem. Even if it is possible to see why the manager is a fan of Barkley, it is questionable whether his main assets – the powerful runs, the occasional incision, the ability to shoot from long range – translate well at international level. It is debatable whether that is the way to bring the best out of England’s scintillating attack.
Do they need a midfielder who needlessly wastes possession and dips in and out of games? We all know what happens when England lose the midfield battle in big games. They were punished by Croatia’s Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in their World Cup semi-final last year and it was a similar story when Frenkie de Jong ran rings around them in their Nations League semi-final defeat by the Netherlands in June. For all that Southgate is trying to develop a more refined style, inefficiency in possession remains a weakness that could undermine England at Euro 2020.
That nagging concern makes it all the more frustrating that Southgate currently favours a safety-first midfield trio of Barkley, Henderson and Rice, especially when he has players in reserve who could give England more control – players such as Harry Winks, a clever deep-lying orchestrator who was impressive in Tottenham’s run to the Champions League final last season, or James Maddison, who is in fine creative form at Leicester. Phil Foden, who scored twice for the under-21s on Monday, may also push for inclusion if he features more for Manchester City.
Yet it was telling that Southgate did not call on Maddison’s ingenuity against Kosovo. It is an old English failing to regard creators as dispensable luxuries and the suspicion is the formation will need to be tweaked from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 to work the 22-year-old into the side.
In Southgate’s defence he can point to a back-line that flirted with disaster against Kosovo. Electing not to give a leaky back four an extra layer of protection would be a risk. Henderson’s energy and leadership have made him an important player for Liverpool and, while Rice was at fault for Kosovo’s second goal, the 20-year-old’s performances for West Ham have been excellent and he is a also a snappy, perceptive passer.
Barkley is the most vulnerable of the three. Chelsea’s Mason Mount, whose brief cameo against Kosovo suggests Southgate regards him as an easier fit than Maddison, is breathing down his neck and Liverpool’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is another boasting speed and athleticism.
This is the challenge for Southgate: even if he is not minded to make any drastic gambles, there are ways for him to ensure the best attack England have had in years does not go to waste next summer. A manager who has established world-class forwards in Kane and Raheem Sterling does not have to wait for Barkley to realise his potential.