It does look like Everton manager Ronald Koeman knew exactly what he was doing when he heavily criticized Ross Barkley earlier in the season. The midfielder has looked revitalized in the last few weeks and has put an end to chatter about selling the player or the Blues replacing him in the middle.
Like many other players in the Toffees squad, Barkley struggled to implement Koeman’s vision at the beginning of the season, and he put in a series of underwhelming performances. The fans, especially at Goodison Park, haranguing the player did not help him and he looked to have withdrawn into a shell and the manager more than once dropped him from the starting lineup, choosing to instead play a third holding midfielder like Tom Cleverley. Let that sink in, that’s how far Barkley had fallen.
The inconsistency was part of the problem - Koeman would talk to the media about the player, there’d be a hue-and-cry about Barkley, he’d turn in a decent performance, everything would be alright again, and then the midfielder promptly went back to fair-to-middling, rinse and repeat.
But then around the holiday period, something changed. The fortunes of the club have risen and fallen with the Wavertree-born lad, and mired in the bottom of a one-win-in-eleven slump, Koeman proclaimed that just maybe Barkley was not who we all hoped he would be. Deathly silence across the Toffees world - could it be possible?
But from the ashes of that statement rose a renewed Everton. It started with a couple of clattering tackles by his fellow midfielder James McCarthy against Arsenal at Goodison Park. Fans got back into it, and so did the players. An ensuing loss in the Merseyside Derby was just a blip as the Blues then went on a tear in the League in January.
The introduction of Tom Davies and Koeman’s positional tweaks to the side have recharged the entire team and possibly the biggest beneficiary has been Barkley. Having two solid midfielders behind and two forwards in front of him has given him the space he so desperately craves. He’s been more involved in the play, and with Davies’ driving runs distracting defences, Barkley finds himself in room from where he can once again direct the attack.
While some of the credit will go to the manager, it’s the player himself who needs to be commended for taking the feedback to heart and working hard to improve himself. Blues will not need to be reminded of the number of youngsters who have come through the system and heralded as the ‘next-whoever’, and proceeded to fall flat on their faces.
After the win over Palace this weekend, even Koeman acknowledged the influence Barkley had in the game.
“We speak a lot with Ross about what we need in the team from his qualities. And we know if you are a midfield player you need to run, you need to work, you need to defend.
“Against Crystal Palace he was really that player in the midfield. He was always free, he had good control of the ball, he had a good shot in the first half, a good assist for scoring goals – and that’s what we need.
“We need for Romelu Lukaku as well, from Kevin Mirallas, from Ross, from Ademola Lookman when he came in.
“And that’s what we need - we don’t need Ross to get the ball from a defender, turn, and play a five-yard pass. No. We need him in the final part of attacking and he is changing in that and that’s what we like.”
The 23-year-old has 23 appearances for the Blues this season, scoring four goals with four assists so far, and Toffees will be hoping that he has finally hit the form his immense potential has promised for years.