Bursting onto the scene as a teenager at Everton a decade ago, Ross Barkley emerged as one of the most exciting young players in the country, making his England debut aged 19 in a World Cup Qualifier against Moldova in September 2013.
Eventually landing a £15m move to Chelsea in January 2018, Barkley struggled to fulfil his potential at Stamford Bridge, with the midfielder unable to maintain a consistent run in the team in his four years at the Blues.
Loaned out to Aston Villa in 2020/21 and spending a season in Ligue 1 with Nice last term, the fearlessness previously exuding from the ex-Everton youngster was conspicuously missing as he failed to make a significant impact at either club.
Becoming a free agent last summer after being released by Nice, the once widely heralded Barkley’s stock in the game had reached an all time low.
In desperate need of a confidence boost to kickstart a career which has seen Barkley capped 33 times by England, the midfielder opted to make a surprise move to Kenilworth Road with newly promoted Premier League side Luton Town.
Things couldn't have panned out any better for Barkley at his new club so far, with the 30-year-old's starring role in the Hatters' pulsating 4-4 draw against Newcastle at St James' Park - in which he registered a goal and an assist - the latest in a growing line of dazzling performances in England's top flight this season.
We take an in-depth look at Barkley's renaissance at Luton in the latest instalment of In Focus...
Signed on a free transfer by Luton boss Rob Edwards in the summer, Barkley has been arguably the Hatters’ player of the season far in their first ever Premier League campaign.
Attracted by the club’s story of rising from the Conference to the Premier League and the lure of regular game time, Barkley has provided this Luton side with an “X Factor” according to manager Rob Edwards.
“He allows us to play differently, to be a different team,” Edwards told the press following Luton's first home win of the season against Crystal Palace in November.
Typically deployed in a midfield two within Edwards’ preferred 5-4-1/3-4-3 setup, forming a fruitful partnership with Arsenal loanee Albert Sambi Lokonga, Barkley occupies a more withdrawn role at the Hatters than his days as at Everton and Chelsea.
Earlier on his career Barkley’s dynamism and powerful running saw him utilised as more of an advanced midfielder, typically given the freedom to get forward and make things happen.
Given Edwards’ tactical approach at Luton, Barkley is required to be more disciplined so as to not vacate the midfield and leave Luton vulnerable in defensive transitions.
With the third lowest average possession in the league at 39%, above only Everton and Sheffield United, Luton are often content to give up the ball and sit compact in a rigid shape out of possession.
When Luton do get a hold of the ball they look to get it forward quickly, with quick and direct forward players such as Chiedozie Ogbene, Andros Townsend, Elijah Adebayo and Carlton Morris thriving in counter attacking situations.
Barkley is a key part of this style of play, boasting the power, dribbling ability and technical quality to help spring counter attacks in the middle of the pitch in almost quarterback fashion.
The Everton academy graduate is also the man this Luton team look to pass to at every opportunity, safe in the knowledge Barkley is comfortable handling the ball under pressure and in tight areas.
This is where Barkley’s bonafide Premier League quality and experience at the highest level is evident, with the midfielder's form a key factor in Luton’s growing confidence as a top flight side.
Wearing the number six shirt at Luton, perhaps this deeper midfield role in which he is the cornerstone of the team has benefited Barkley, with the Scouser at times struggling to impact games when given more creative license at Chelsea.
I think he’s just enjoying his football, we love him, we’ve given him a nice home, we really value him and he’s really repaying that as well.”
- Rob Edwards, January 2024 [TNT Sports]
Barkley's midfield masterclass against Newcastle at St James' Park was his 13th consecutive start for Luton in the Premier League.
A largely forgotten figure in England following an under the radar spell in French football with Nice, Barkley’s renaissance at Luton has become impossible to ignore.
Perhaps driven by a desire to remind everyone just how good he can be, some of Barkley’s finest performances for the Hatters have come against the Premier League’s elite, including his former employers Chelsea.
Unlikely to have been short of motivation ahead of his meeting with former club Chelsea at Kenilworth Road in December, Barkley was arguably the best player on the pitch as Luton came unstuck 3-2 in a thrilling encounter.
Sharing the pitch with the Blues’ £115 summer signing Moises Caicedo and stand in captain Conor Gallagher, it was Luton’s number six who was the most impressive performer on display as he ran the show in the middle of the park for the Hatters.
Barkley was equally influential against Premier League title challengers Arsenal and Manchester City, with Luton losing 4-3 to the Gunners and 2-1 to Pep Guardiola’s charges having led in both matches.
On a night in which Declan Rice sealed all three points for Arsenal with a 97th minute winner, Barkley was able to successfully dribble past Gunners captain Martin Odegaard on four occasions.
The 30-year-old had such an upper hand on the Norwegian that he revealed the Arsenal playmaker had begged him to stop running at him with the ball.
“When I had the ball I knew I could move it away from him,” Barkley said in an interview with The Times in December.
Barkley was also able to showcase his talents against reigning Premier League champions City, helping launch the attack which led to Elijah Adebayo's opening goal with some stunning skill in the middle of the park.
So impressive have Barkley’s performances been that teammate Andros Townsend has audaciously compared him to World Cup-winning legend Diego Maradona.
Townsend told talkSPORT in December: "Honestly, they’ve been some of the best midfield performances I’ve seen in my career.
"It’s just unbelievable – the calmness, the ability to get the ball off the back four and knock it past some of the world’s best midfielders without a care in the world.
"We saw yesterday against Man City, Maradona was in the midfield to set up our goal – honestly, it’s been a joy to watch."
Barkley’s capacity to stand out against some of the best players in the world representing teams of the ilk of Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City is a testament to his quality, with the Englishman clearly relishing the opportunity to be the main man at Luton.
I’m getting on the ball and making things happen. With playing deeper there’s more space to drive into, which I thrive on.”
- Ross Barkley, December 2023 [TNT Sports]
To be Relegated - 10/11
Not to be Relegated -
Barkley’s role in Luton’s marked upturn in form - with the Hatters having lost just one of their last nine matches in all competitions - has prompted calls for the dynamic midfielder to be considered for an international recall by England manager Gareth Southgate.
The in-form Luton maestro is a player well known to Southgate having been capped 11 times by the England boss, the latest of which saw Barkley bag a brace for the Three Lions in a 6-0 win against Bulgaria in a World Cup Qualifier in October 2019.
It’s therefore been just over four years since Barkley last represented his country, and the 30-year-old has stated his ambition to return to the international fold.
“I feel I’m good enough to play for England again,” Barkley told The Times in December.
Considering the relative lightness of England’s central midfield options compared to other positions at present, a call-up for Barkley is not beyond the realms of possibility should he maintain his current form at Kenilworth Road.
Although Arsenal’s Declan Rice has solidified his status as automatic first pick at the base of England’s midfield, the identity of his midfield partner appears up for grabs should Southgate persist with a 4-2-3-1 setup with Real Madrid sensation Jude Bellingham freed up in a number 10 role.
Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Henderson have been the most frequent partners for Rice in England’s engine room in the last couple of years, but with the latter having made a difficult start to his loan spell at West Ham and the former spending the first half of the season operating in the Saudi Pro League, neither appear well placed to start for their country at the moment.
Other midfield options for Southgate at present include Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher, but the suitability of either within Southgate’s system which utilises a deep-lying midfield duo is also questionable.
Barkley is perhaps the most in-form English midfielder in the country at the moment, playing in a similar two-man midfield structure as Southgate's England at Luton alongside Sambi Lokonga where he is required to maintain his positional discipline.
If Luton are to avoid relegation under Rob Edwards it would undoubtedly mark one of the finest achievements in the Premier League this season, one so impressive that surely Barkley as one of their star performers would be knocking on the door for international recognition.
Ross Barkley was a member of England's 2014 World Cup squad in Brazil, playing in all three matches against Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica as the Three Lions failed to progress past the group stage.
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