Aston Villa are getting Ross Barkley 2.0 – and it looks like smart business

Last October, Matty Cash was standing outside the home changing rooms at Villa Park, just after visitors Luton Town had been beaten 3-1, when he shared an anecdote which – in hindsight – seems more significant now.

“Ross Barkley said to me, ‘How many set pieces have you always got?!’” Cash said.

Luton midfielder Barkley was impressed and surprised by Aston Villa’s attention to detail. Things had changed since he had played for the club on loan from Chelsea three seasons earlier, when they were an improving, albeit mid-table, Premier League side. To accentuate the contrast, Barkley’s year in claret and blue was played in front of empty stands due to rules against crowds gathering related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

That post-game conversation with Cash spoke of how the now 30-year-old had maintained close bonds with former team-mates. He became good friends with many in that Villa squad, including Jack Grealish.

Now, Barkley is returning permanently.

He joins after a season with Luton, where the manager, Rob Edwards, had reinvigorated his career to the point that Villa counterpart Unai Emery became a major admirer. And when Emery wants someone, Villa’s footballing department does whatever it can to comply with his wishes. His belief in Barkley, and the fact central midfield was a priority position this summer, meant Villa had little doubt in exercising the £5million ($6.4m) buy-out clause in the former England international’s contract.

Unlike in that first stint, Barkley is now a player going back up the football mountain. He had been on a gradual downward slide during that loan spell, with Chelsea only too willing to get him off their books for 12 months.

A promising start soon faded in a forgettable season, which included the third notable hamstring injury of his career and an inability to bear the weight of creative responsibility for the team he was asked to shoulder at the end of that season after Grealish was ruled out with his own fitness issues.

Barkley had a frustrating 2020-21 season on loan at Villa (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Any hopes of a permanent move were scuppered when Barkley only scored once after returning from that hamstring problem in the January and failed to register an assist in his final 14 appearances for Villa. Dean Smith, the manager at the time, left him on the bench for two of the last three games, while the other was against his parent club so he was not allowed to play.

Crucially, all parties feel Barkley is a different player, and person, now.

This is a player in the second iteration of his career and given his vast experience — he played in all three of England’s games at the World Cup in Brazil a decade ago — believe he is at his most assured and settled.

Barkley’s trajectory has been rocky. His emergence as a teenager at Everton saw him compared to fellow Goodison prodigy Wayne Rooney — perhaps inevitably given his physique, local roots and prodigious reputation — but he struggled with fitness and consistency. A move to Chelsea in January 2018 was misplaced and while every incoming coach at Stamford Bridge injected fleeting confidence in Barkley, it soon evaporated.

He appeared a player, going into his mid-to-late twenties, toiling to get back to where he once was and coaches were unsure of his best position. Regular managerial changes brought different systems and instructions and meant constant resetting.

In his loan spell at Villa, Barkley predominantly played in the left half-pocket. He had played to the left of a midfield trio in a 4-3-3 under Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea and, considering Grealish played slightly wider, Smith had confidence a partnership could be forged there.

Barkley flew through England’s various youth levels and made his senior debut at 19. He has won another 32 caps since, but his most recent one came over four years ago.

His renaissance at Luton last season, however, saw him re-enter the conversation around the national team, even if he fell short of a place in the provisional squad for Euro 2024.

GettyImages 2148521620 scaled

Barkley was a goal threat for Luton last season (Matt McNulty/Getty Images)

He found a home, and a manager in Edwards who installed confidence and clarity, rediscovering his distinctive skill set. His year at Luton proved, personally, an unmitigated success — even if it was ultimately tinged with the regret of their relegation after a first season among the domestic elite since the early 1990s.

A more mature Barkley learned to enjoy football again, after four and a half unfulfilling years at Chelsea and a lukewarm 2022-23 season with Nice in France’s top flight.

Just 10 months ago, and with the start of a new Premier League season just two days away, Barkley remained a free agent. It showed how far his stock had fallen. But he ended up elevating Luton, and they him.

His lack of a proper pre-season meant Barkley had to build up his fitness as he went, but he managed 37 appearances across all competitions, starting in all but three of them, and the third-most league minutes of any Luton outfield player (2,618). In doing so, he demonstrated a durability that was felt to have been missing throughout his career — largely through no fault of his own.

Contrary to perception, however, Barkley has shown a good availability rate.

Despite being limited to 14 Chelsea appearances in 2021-22, he has played an average of 30 games across the past six seasons and has not suffered a serious injury since leaving Villa. This is significant, given he sustained those three separate hamstring injuries in as many years between 2018 and 2021, ruling him out for 249 days in total.

Barkley owes the start of his second career phase to Edwards, transitioning from a drifting No 10 into a more measured and deeper midfield presence. A player who turned 30 in December operated in a withdrawn double-pivot for Luton, inheriting greater responsibility and requiring him to start attacks and be combative out of possession.

He fits Villa’s criteria by playing in a midfield pair, which has a similar remit to that demanded by Emery.

barkley touches

Barkley contributed five goals and four assists in the league last season, and led Luton in several in-possession metrics, including passes completed, carries and passes received. Even in a side who averaged just 41.6 per cent possession, he was Luton’s metronome and line-breaker.

His verticality with the ball chimed with Edwards’ desire to apply direct pressure to the opposition back line. Across Europe’s top five domestic leagues, Barkley ranked in the 69th percentile (only 31 per cent were better) of midfielders for carries into the final third at 1.68 per 90 minutes.

Within Luton’s 3-5-2 shape, which principally attacked through high wing-backs, Barkley’s passing range was used expertly.

A common pattern of play was a switch to the opposite flank, with Barkley striking an effective understanding with left wing-back Alfie Doughty. Barkley ranked in the 93rd percentile of midfielders from Europe’s top five leagues for switches of play per 90 (0.83).

Image 05 06 2024 at 14.47

Image 05 06 2024 at 14.48

Barkley will offer Villa a more expansive and varied passing range than his midfield peers — particularly with Douglas Luiz departing for Juventus — and augment Emery’s desire to transition quickly from deep areas.

Sharing the set-piece duties, Barkley (11) and Doughty (16) created Luton’s most goal-creating actions last season. Barkley ranked in the top 21 per cent of midfielders in Europe’s biggest five domestic leagues for key passes per 90 (1.51) and top 16 per cent for shot-creating actions (3.58 per 90).

Edwards aimed to push teams back through Barkley’s switches of play and Doughty’s crossing, in turn creating space on the edge of the opposition box for Luton shots. Last season, only three per cent of midfielders in the big five leagues took more shots than Barkley (2.27 per 90) with just seven per cent putting more on target (0.65 per 90).

Image 05 06 2024 at 14.49

A drawback to Barkley’s risk-taking licence was his profligacy in possession, standing in the bottom three per cent of midfielders dispossessed across those same five divisions. Relatively speaking though, his role drew parallels with the balancing act Bruno Fernandes performs for Manchester United. Given they are their team’s creative hub, losing the ball is generally accepted.

Barkley’s athleticism means he can cover the width of the pitch in a midfield pairing, able to defend spaces on transition — he made an average of 6.91 ball recoveries per game last season (88th percentile) — and can support his closest full-back when offering defensive cover.

Versatility will be an important factor at Villa next season, with Barkley still capable of playing in more advanced areas against certain stylistic match-ups.

Image 05 06 2024 at 14.51

Against high-pressing teams who leave space on transition, he could be deployed further forward, leaning on his ball-carrying and take-on ability. Remarkably, he ranked in the top one per cent of midfielders in Europe’s big five leagues for dribbling past defenders.

Without the ball, Barkley is an anomaly; one that can be explained by Luton’s deep defensive set-up. This contributed to his low numbers for tackles made (0.65 per 90; fifth percentile). Regardless, he still had the fifth-most tackles (47) and joint-fourth most interceptions (25) in Edwards’ squad.

Curiously, despite being in or just above the bottom quarter among midfielders in Europe’s biggest five leagues for tackles in the defensive and middle thirds, when Luton did press high with midfielders locking onto opponents in advanced areas, Barkley was among the top 22 per cent for them in the final third.

Now more measured and mature than he was during that loan spell, Barkley returns to Villa as a different player and a cost-effective, all-round midfielder who adds to Emery’s options.

This deal feels like smart business.

(Top photo: Warren Little/Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top