On Sunday, Chelsea dispatched Burnley with comparative ease to maintain their hugely impressive unbeaten start to the season. A 4-0 victory left them breathing down the necks of joint Premier League leaders Manchester City and Liverpool, and in a position few predicted before the action got underway in August.
Whether the Londoners can sustain a title challenge is another question, but for now, the speed in which the squad has adapted to Maurizio Sarri’s methods is quite staggering. Largely a counter-attacking team under Sarri’s predecessors Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, Chelsea lead the possession statistics, have completed more passes than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues and in Jorginho, they have the player with the most passes completed and touches.
Sarri is typically gracious and humble, but the impact he has had so far is remarkable, and on one player in particular: Ross Barkley.
Sarri has a unique knack of identifying exactly what role is best suited for a player, as he did at Napoli when converting Dries Mertens from a wide player into a central forward, and has found the right position for Barkley.
Barkley has had to bide his time and wait for an opportunity, but after catching the attention of the new coach in pre-season, he has grabbed it when presented with playing time. Barkley’s beautifully struck left footed finish from the edge of the box at Turf Moore was his third goal in as many games, but it was the completeness of his performance that caught the eye.
One moment in particular stood out in the first half. Barkley received the ball around 30 yards from goal, but instead of attempting to take on his man and losing the ball – an issue which blighted his final days as an Everton player – he controlled the ball with his left foot and instantly found Alvaro Morata for the opener.
The decisiveness of his decision making was noted by Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville on Monday Night Football. “We all love to see players dribble but football is a passing game and maybe two or three times a game you have the chance to go on a dribble,” Carragher explained. “Now he is making better decisions.”
Neville praised Sarri for helping Barkley have a clearer idea of what he was expected to do. “This idea that players can be free players and do what they want; it's rubbish. Players like him need to know when to be where. He's needs guidance and a framework and a platform. It looks like he has an idea of how to play and where to play. He looks like he has a sense of his game and he has improved all around.”
At Everton, Roberto Martinez would encourage Barkley to express himself and try risky pieces of play, but you got the sense he was never really comfortable with that freedom and aways required more guidance. Martinez’s successor Ronald Koeman didn’t seem to rate him and regularly questioned Barkley’s attitude. The club tried to sell him in the summer of 2017, but he turned the move down and was ostracised from the first team.
With only months remaining on his contract, a move away from his hometown club always appeared likely. In January Chelsea acquired his services, but Barkley encountered a similar problem in that the coach didn’t have any faith in his ability whatsoever. When Chelsea lost 2-1 to Arsenal in the League Cup semi-final in January, Conte remarked that it was incredibly difficult when his best players were injured, “especially when on the bench the only substitute is Ross Barkley.”
Thankfully for Barkley, he has an admirer in Sarri and has fought his way back into the England national squad. Carragher went as far as to claim that Barkley was vastly more talented than England regulars Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, and that he just needed to become mentally stronger.
The key of course for Barkley will now be consistency. If he can sustain this form, his place in the England squad should be assured. Along with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, there’s a potential route into the Chelsea first team as Mateo Kovacic is only on loan from Real Madrid. Under the tutelage of Sarri, the sky is the limit.
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