Aston Villa signing Emiliano Buendía ensured the return to Chelsea of Ross Barkley after his season-long loan. Aged 26 when he joined Villa's promising team in September 2020, he appeared to have found the ideal home at which to hone is undoubted talents, and yet as at Everton and Chelsea, after impressively demonstrating those talents, he struggled for consistency.
It is no doubt that inconsistency that contributed to Dean Smith instead prioritising recruiting Buendía, and that could cost him again at Chelsea where competition to start in midfield is so strong. "He got an injury which halted his momentum because he was playing excellently," Smith explained. "That coincided with a lot of indifferent form from us as a team – not just Ross – and it never happened as much as we’d have liked it to."
Barkley is a particularly forward-thinking player when he is in possession. Though not necessarily the tidiest, technically, he consistently seeks to progress the ball (below) – occasionally at the expense of a fluidity that might otherwise be achieved. Whether playing a pass, or dribbing with close control or across larger distances and spaces, he also offers admirable variety, and when receiving possession regularly adjusts to what exists around him.
His technique is perhaps most refined when he is striking the ball. He can powerfully shoot through it to ensure speed, whether from close range or distance, and has improved that technique to such a level that accuracy is not sacrificed. His switches of play, and longer-range passes, involve him using that same technique, and though he is effective with both feet, it is his right that is his strongest – not least when delivering whipped balls in behind defences, or aerial balls into the penalty area.
Barkley's frame is a further strength, because of the extent to which it contributes to his ability to hide and protect the ball in small spaces, and to compete and duel for possession at both the first and second phase. By using his arms and upper body, he often resists and holds off opponents until the ball can finally be released. That physicality is also a strength when a teammate is in possession and he offers forwards runs and support. Those runs are correctly timed, encouraging counter-attacks and transitions through midfield, and often invite final balls to be played in behind defences, when he is similarly capable of physically competing with his opponents; if there are times he misplaces passes or sets to those around him, his persistence means he continues to create.
When his team is forced to defend for lengthy periods, Barkley is effective at supporting through the inside channels and forcing play wide. If he lacks the acceleration demonstrated by other midfielders when they first press, he judges how to instead arrive at the ball-carrier's feet to dispossess them; where he is more limited is when required to repeatedly change direction in a small area to continue applying the desired press. It is for that reason that he is more influential from the left than the right of a midfield – he presses away from centre of the pitch, and then faces it with his stronger right foot at the moment of transition.
Role at Aston Villa
Barkley was consistently used in a midfield three, most commonly in front of Douglas Luiz and alongside McGinn, or in front of them as a number 10 and therefore closer to their starting striker – most commonly Ollie Watkins – if they were combining to form a double pivot. His willingess to receive during the earlier stages of an attacking build-up involved him withdrawing to towards the ball to receive away from the opposing defenders or defensive midfielders.
If he was operating as Villa's number 10, he demonstrated an increased passing range, and received possession in an increased variety of positions. His presence also had the potential to increase space infield for the influential Jack Grealish, whether Villa's captain was seeking to dribble into those areas or moving to receive vertical passes through the inside channels. When he did so Barkley supported by making forward runs ahead of play, by joining Watkins in attacking the spaces around their opposing central defenders (above), or by drifting further to the right. That his runs were so often so well-timed also made him capable of providing the link, via a bounce pass, to Watkins when he was out of reach of a direct pass – as was also the case during transitions.
McGinn similarly benefitted from Barkley's presence. The Scot's forward runs, whether from alongside or behind Barkley, contributed to Villa's impressive attacking balance, inspiring fine victories over Liverpool, Arsenal and Leicester throughout 2020/21. McGinn contributed to those attacks with a delayed forward run, and one that adapted to the changing positions of Barkley and Grealish. If McGinn and Barkley were paired ahead of Luiz in a 4-3-3, Barkley moved deeper to take possession, attempted more forward passes, and offered fewer runs beyond Watkins and opposing defences. McGinn's presence further forwards instead meant more rotations in support of Watkins.
Where Barkley proved less effective in combining with those around him in what was a promising attack was when he continued to prioritise the left inside channel when Watkins was running around the right shoulder of the opposition's right-sided central defender. Watkins does so so that he can face goal with his first touch and quickly shoot with his stronger right foot, and Barkley could become less effective if he didn't respond by attacking towards the right, though if he didn't McGinn continued to ensure a degree of balance by supporting into the right inside channel – potentially via a delayed run. Barkley, regardless, continued to offer switches of play, shots from range, and support from behind or near the ball carrier (above), consistently attempting to ensure that the speed of their attacks was maintained.
Author: Tony Hodson