A week that has seen the beginning of the end of Phil Neville’s Everton career started with a rare Premier League outing for Ross Barkley, the 19-year-old midfielder at the other end of the career spectrum from the soon-to-depart captain.
Barkley made only his fifth league appearance of the season at White Hart Lane, the first to come as a start and just the 10th of his career. With only five games in other competitions to his name as an Everton player, the teenager is still vastly inexperienced.
Everton attempted to remedy that earlier in the campaign with a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday, where he scored four goals in 13 games and impressed at Hillsborough, and a second short-term move away from Goodison Park, this time to Leeds United. It didn’t go quite so well at Elland Road, with only four appearances, but as Neil Warnock’s recent departure suggests, all is not well in that part of Yorkshire.
It was a surprise to see Barkley’s name on the team sheet against Tottenham. David Moyes had to again account for the absence of Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar and, after doing away with the 3-4-3 formation he deployed against Stoke City, needed somebody to fill in for the South African on the left of midfield.
Barkley beat out Bryan Oviedo for the place, with the right-footed Barkley more likely to cut inside in the manner of Pienaar and free the left flank for Leighton Baines to raid. But Barkley looked a little uncomfortable away from the centre of midfield, his usual position. It was also clear from his hesitant control that he was particularly wary of losing possession, but by stopping play as he did, he invited the Tottenham pressure onto him.
It’s safe to say that Barkley won’t feature in the same position against Queens Park Rangers on Saturday. His most likely starting berth will be on the bench. Pienaar and Fellaini are both available again after their two-game ban and having covered for the former against Spurs, it’s actually in the latter’s role that Barkley might find most success at the moment.
A concern when watching Barkley play in the hectic pace of the Premier League is his speed of thought, not just in possession or receiving the ball but defensively. He needs to develop his spatial awareness but that will come, in time, if he has the potential the Everton coaches believe.
But if Barkley was allowed to support a lone striker, given licence to attack the box late and also the security of two experienced midfielders behind him, the question marks over his game could largely be negated. It would also allow Moyes to maintain his preferred system of a lone striker supported by an attacking midfielder, rather than attempt to shoe-horn in a second striker that never looks comfortable with the players that make up the squad.
Barkley’s not going to get in the side ahead of Fellaini, however, and playing him in central midfield carries risks that in the compact league table, have hefty consequences. An extended loan spell – a full season – in the Championship or a lower-ranked Premier League team would be best for Barkley’s development and, ultimately, best for Everton too, if he can fulfil his potential.
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