Such is the fate of a vaguely promising English footballer that Ross Barkley has been compared to the greats far more often than he has displayed greatness himself.
Gary Lineker and countless others who doubtless wish they could erase their words from the internet’s memory banks once anointed him as the successor to Paul Gascoigne. Roberto Martinez, while his manager at Everton, saw fit to draw comparisons between the then-teenager and Germany juggernaut Michael Ballack. Five years later and Barkley needs just the 76 further caps and 40 goals to become England’s equivalent.
In reality Barkley is one step away from becoming the next Jack Wilshere, who once infatuated a nation and has now traded down from Arsenal to West Ham in an effort to revive an injury-prone career.
On the face of it, the chance of a revival at Chelsea would seem bleak. When Barkley was eliciting these comparisons, as premature as they were, Maurizio Sarri was embroiled in a Serie B dogfight with Empoli. While Sarri was cultivating one of the most exciting attacks in Europe at Napoli, Barkley was falling out with Everton before being squirreled away by Chelsea, more for potential profit than anything else.
Why would a manager, given the chance of his career at 59 years old, pin any amount of hope on a player such as him?
Unlike Antonio Conte, and certainly Jose Mourinho, Sarri wants as little to do with Chelsea’s transfer policy as possible. Save from wanting a ‘pinch of quality’ in midfield – and Jorginho, following him from Napoli, certainly brings that – Sarri has been a picture of contentment so far.
A banker until his 40s before quitting to go full-time in a job he’s confessed he would do for free, the Italian is a man who does not desire the riches of others when he now possesses so much of his own.
Whether Barkley is a rough diamond or fool’s gold remains to be seen but Sarri, in the spirit of his far humbler managerial upbringing than most, is experienced in that particular area.
He took his gemcutter’s tools with him through the doors of Stadio San Paolo in 2015, honing fan-favourite try-hard Lorenzo Insigne into a predator from the left. When Gonzalo Higuain left a year later Dries Mertens became the focal point in attack, and in the last two seasons combined, has accounted for 46 goals in Serie A. Of course, a similarly diminutive – but considerably better – Belgian in Eden Hazard awaits Sarri’s influence at Chelsea.
Then there is Marek Hamsik, who was a blunt instrument when wielded by a rigorously defensive mind in Rafa Benitez before Sarri showed up. Napoli’s all-time top goalscorer revelled in ‘Sarrismo’, encouraged to harry, create and at times become almost a second striker as the foremost midfielder of a trio.
Time to come full circle, while treading on the margins of rank hypocrisy. If all falls into place – and going by his career to date there is every indication it won’t – Barkley has the skill set to fill the role Hamsik performed for Napoli under Sarri.
Two midfield positions are already set in stone. Jorginho is playing the bass with his rhythmic passing in a deep-lying role, N’Golo Kante is the ceaseless percussion. They need someone to play lead guitar.
Cesc Fabregas has the sumptuous technique but lacks the physical qualities, particularly in his advancing years, Sarri is yet to get to grips with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tiemoue Bakayoko, for now at least, hits too many bum notes to be trusted.
Tentatively step forward Ross Barkley. Everton has hardly been a hub of creativity in recent years but between 2014 and 2017, the local boy was first for chances created, assists, fouls won, dribbles attempted and completed. He also took the second-most shots and touches in the entire team. All that while the common thought was he had more to give, with his rare physical gifts.
In a sense, the stars have aligned for Barkley because of the lack of them. Without the presence of World Cup winner Kante in pre-season the 24-year-old has lined up alongside rather than competed with Fabregas, and has stood out from a thinned crowd. He has also stolen a march on a late-to-arrive Loftus-Cheek, particularly with the demands Sarri places on his players off the ball.
There’s a long road to traverse between impressing against Perth Glory and becoming a fixture of a title-challenging side after a season lost to injury and apathy under Conte. The Community Shield then is a more important game to him than most.
Can he rock like Hamsik? Barkley better crank up the amp.