Chelsea tasked with solving the Ross Barkley enigma after inauspicious debut against Arsenal
The last corner was Chelsea’s last chance. Ross Barkley took it. He failed to beat the defender at the near post. There was no equaliser. Wembley beckons for Arsenal instead. Barkley’s Chelsea debut appeared epitomised by the moment that ended it: an anti-climax.
Perhaps, on a personal level, it was unlikely to be anything else. He was parachuted into a first appearance for eight months when Willian hobbled off. Had either Cesc Fabregas or Alvaro Morata been fit then Barkley would not have been summoned so soon. Antonio Conte admitted as much after Chelsea’s League Cup semi-final defeat.
"When there is an injury to one of your best players it is not simple, especially when on the bench the only substitute is Ross Barkley,” the Chelsea manager said.
It scarcely counted as a vote of confidence which, given Barkley’s past, should be a concern. It was also another slight to Michy Batshuayi, the substitute Conte did not consider an option and the one-man warning that unwanted squad players at Stamford Bridge can get marginalised.
Unsurprisingly, given they had never played together before, Barkley did not recreate the departed Willian’s chemistry with Eden Hazard. He completed 18 of his 22 passes. He failed to find a teammate with any of five crosses. He was fouled five times as Arsenal resorted to the illegal to halt a forceful figure. After a serious hamstring injury, his was not a particularly poor performance. Nor, given the impatience of his new manager, was it auspicious.
“He has a lot of space for improvement,” Conte said. In part, that reflects a demanding character’s ethos, that a diet of work can make everyone better. Yet it was scarcely a glowing tribute. Nor did it imply a manager, whose relations with Chelsea’s powerbrokers have been strained over transfer dealings, particularly wanted Barkley, a £15 million (Dh78.6m) arrival from Everton.
And that has a pertinence to a player whose talents have captivated and frustrated his managers. The pragmatist David Moyes rarely started him. The idealist Roberto Martinez indulged him. The outspoken Ronald Koeman criticised him.
At international level, Roy Hodgson showed his lack of trust when Barkley was the only midfielder or forward in his Euro 2016 squad who did not get on the pitch. At lower-league level, Neil Warnock loaned him and dropped him from the Leeds United side.
Most deemed Barkley an enigma. Many struggled to define his role. He was a No 10 for Martinez, a player who ended up roving from the right for Koeman. One theory was that, if Tottenham Hotspur had signed him, Mauricio Pochettino would have used him as a ball-carrying runner from deep, Mousa Dembele-style.
His Chelsea bow came in the inside-forward role in the front three. He may not be disciplined enough to conform to Conte’s idea of a central midfielder. It is hard to escape the feeling that Conte, like Koeman, will concentrate on what Barkley does not do, rather than what he does.
Yet only four footballers created more chances in the Premier League last season. Such productive players, apart from notable exceptions like Mesut Ozil, tend to be celebrated. At times, Barkley is castigated.
He felt a pragmatic purchase for an increasingly business-like club that has got better at monetising assets. A cut-price fee offers the opportunity to yield a profit.
Yet it could bring a first-team player. Unleashing that ability and unlocking that potential should be a project for Chelsea. Perhaps not for Conte, who could be gone in the summer.
But Barkley’s history indicates how important it is for him that Chelsea find a successor who understands and appreciates him. He remains a man in search of the right manager.