After only making two Premier League appearances following his £15 million move from Everton back in January, it’s fair to say Ross Barkley was quickly becoming a forgotten man at Stamford Bridge.
Making cameo appearances in Chelsea’s pair of 3-0 defeats against Bournemouth and Newcastle at the back end of last season, coupled with a long-term hamstring injury, he was left with a lot to do to prove himself during pre-season.
However, with the arrival of a new manager and a new system, Maurizio Sarri’s 4-3-3 may give Barkley the platform to showcase his unquestionable potential.
Coming off the back of an impressive tour of Australia last month, the 22-cap England international has been described as a key part of his new boss’s plans. Now 24 and with the chance to play European football under an attacking manager, could this be the start of a new chapter in Barkley’s career?
New manager, new confidence
Continuing to give his young midfielder the chance to get back on the pitch, Barkley played 90 minutes in Chelsea’s 2-0 loss to Manchester City in last weekend’s Community Shield. Remarkably, that was the first time he had played a whole competitive match since May 2017: a match played under Ronald Koeman at Everton.
Putting in arguably the best performance in what was a lacklustre defeat for the Blues, Barkley showed glimpses of those jinxing runs and his high-intensity pressing is very similar to the quick counter-attacking style Sarri’s Napoli side were famous for.
Wearing the iconic number eight shirt that Chelsea legend Frank Lampard wore for club and county, Barkley now has the perfect stage to justify his presence at Stamford Bridge.
If he isn’t already, the 24-year-old should be relishing the chance to work in a midfield three alongside another Napoli recruit in summer signing Jorginho and recently crowned World Champion N’Golo Kante.
With Cesc Fabregas replacing the two-time PFA Player of the Year on Sunday for the Community Shield, Chelsea were overrun by City’s midfield three of Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan.
However, with Kante now back in full training and Italian international Jorginho finding a pass every 27 seconds against Perth in pre-season, Barkley will be given licence to play.
Making his fifth pre-season appearance against Lyon in midweek, more outings than he managed for the Blues in the whole of last season, he produced a brilliant panenka penalty in a shoot-out they won 6-5. For the first time in nearly two years, Barkley had the air of a player enjoying his football.
"It's my type of style"
“I’ll play any style of play, but for the manager it’s my type of style. He’s an attacking manager, he wants exciting football, to be high up the pitch pressing, scoring goals and being exciting, team performances all round."
After admitting that he had spent time studying footage of Sarri's Napoli team from last season, Barkley appears to be a fan of what he is seeing from a man who was voted Serie A Coach of the Year and was widely applauded by the likes of Pep Guardiola.
Although his new boss insists his midfielder still needs to improve areas of his defensive work, Barkley has a willingness to learn and improve.
At 24, he is still young and raw enough to be moulded by Sarri. Standing a tad over 6'2" and with a tremendous box-to-box engine, he has the tools to make a real difference if successfully harnessed.
Barkley is right to claim Sarri's new style of football suits him to a tee. He has always shown the most substantial parts of his ability when working under a manager who encourages an expansive and attractive style of football.
It was under now Belgium manager Roberto Martinez at Everton that the Liverpool native announced himself as arguably English football's brightest starlet. After being shortlisted for the PFA Young Player of the Year in 2014, Barkley created 84 goal-scoring chances in the 2016/2017: more than any other English player in the Premier League.
While Martinez's trademark 3-4-3 is different to Sarri's newly implemented 4-3-3 formation, both encourage Barkley to play where he is at his best: in a more advanced role.
With Chelsea often accused of struggling to produce chances for the likes of Eden Hazard and Willian last season, the introduction of an in-form Ross Barkley could bring that eye-catching football Stamford Bridge demands.
Catching Gareth's eye
After failing to gain a single second of action during England's disastrous Euro 2016 campaign in France, Barkley has failed to gain another England cap since making a second-half appearance in a 2-1 win over Australia in May 2016.
While many had him tipped as the man to build the future around for the Three Lions, Barkley has had to watch from afar as Gareth Southgate's youthful England side reached the semi-final of this year's World Cup.
Yes, England rightfully received plenty of plaudits for their efforts this summer. But there was still a longing for someone who could play between the lines and pull the strings.
For example, although they were lethal from set pieces in Russia, England had fewer shots on target from open play than any other team except for Iran and the often-criticised Raheem Sterling didn't have the creative spark needed to change a game.
A good season with Maurizio Sarri's Chelsea and Ross Barkley will suggest himself as the solution to the creativity problem that England have been looking to solve.
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