This season has seen Ross Barkley become a more prominent member of the Chelsea side after his disappointing first season that saw him make just two appearances in the premier league. Barkley spent the first half of that season injured whilst at Everton before a surprising move to Chelsea in the January transfer window. Shortly after arriving he sustained yet another injury which hindered his opportunity to play.
At first glance, the stats show that Barkley has improved dramatically since his last full season with Everton. He has increased his pass completion percentage, ball retention and already has three assists and three goals in the opening nine premier league games. Understandably as an English midfielder who displays some creative skills, his early season form has generated headlines in the media but is the hype entirely justified?
In the Premier League, this season Barkley has a completed pass percentage of 93.7%, compared to 84.5% in his last full season at Everton (2016/17). The biggest jump in passing stat, however,r occur when comparing the accuracy of passes into the final third: 96.6% (6.25 per game) this season compared to 78.8% (6.92 per game) in 2016/17.
He has also improved his stats when it comes to possession lost, losing it just 12% of the time in comparison to 23% at Everton.
Another interesting aspect in the development of Barkley is the number of dribbles that he attempts per game. Over his entire career at Everton, he averaged 5 dribbles per game whereas now he is averaging just 1.6.
He has also made lots of smaller improvements which are contributing towards his perceived improvement such as increasing the number of defensive duels he has won per game from 4.22 to 4.79. Barkley has also increased the average number of interceptions per game from 2.46 to 2.71.
In the early parts of this season, Barkley has shown an improved level of understanding about his positioning and the impact this has on the team. In Sarri’s system, he prefers a more vertical style of ball circulation, which requires players to be positioned between the lines of the opposition. In order for this to be successful, there must be forward options and support around the ball receiver in order to play a lay off pass to a third man. The players are allowed a certain level of flexibility in their positioning but this must be offset by their teammates who are required to fill in spaces.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, Sarri prefers a vertical style of play, for which he requires certain principles to be adhered to. One such principle is to play the ball to a player with a forward view of the pitch; this helps to improve the speed at which the ball can be circulated and spaces exploited. A player receiving the ball with their back to the opponent’s goal has an inferior view of the pitch and would naturally wish to turn so that they are able to see more of the pitch. This as an action however is often slower than playing a lay off pass into a nearby teammate, which is why you will often see Sarri’s sides use these in preference to turning with the ball.
Change in Position
It must be taken into consideration the different role he is expected to perform for Chelsea compared to Everton. At Everton, he would often play in a more advanced role behind Romelu Lukaku, whereas he is now playing as a number 8 at Chelsea.
The improved stats may point to it not just being that Barkley has improved his understanding of the game and how to interact in different situations but that he is more effective when deployed as a centre midfielder. Playing in a more withdrawn role often means there are more forward options for the player in possession compared to when a player is positioned higher up the pitch.
For example, at Everton, it would often occur that Barkley was the furthest advanced player behind Lukaku, which in turn would leave him with limited forward options in which to pass into the final third. However, at Chelsea he often has three forward options into depth, thus increasing the likelihood of making a successful pass into the final third.
Barkley has undoubtedly made a promising start to this premier league campaign, contributing both goals and assists. Whilst this has never really been a concern when talking about him (he scored eight and assisted 8 in 2015/16 & scored five and assisted eight in 2016/17) the overall improvement that can be observed is certainly promising. This does however need to be balanced against the improved side he is playing in and the change in position. It will be interesting to see whether he can continue to contribute goals and assists as well as his improved tactical awareness throughout the remainder of the season.