If Claudio Ranieri’s boom-to-bust reign at Leicester City proved to be a spectacular outlier of established footballing norms, an odds-defying dream of a season followed by a dramatic plummet back to earth, Ronald Koeman’s tenure at Everton looks to be following a more typical arc.
His impressive start to life at Goodison Park — five games without a defeat and a four-match winning streak that had the Blues among the early pace-setters — hinted at the possibility of a stunning first campaign but it didn’t take long for the balloon to burst as a difficult autumn saw his charges struggle to live up to the early-season optimism.
Signs that Koeman had got his feet under the table and was starting to get to grips with his squad emerged around Christmas and by the spring, Everton’s impressive home record in 2017 was pointing towards what could be possible under the Dutchman once get gets further down the road of his “project”.
That hugely encouraging return of “Fortress Goodison” couldn’t mask a lack of inspiration away from home and what was, ultimately, a flat end to 2016-17 that left you with the feeling that there was a collective giving up — the players not confident they could overhaul the three teams above them to make the Champions League and the manager seemingly resigned to the fact that he and Steve Walsh are going to have to buy the team they need to compete. There would be no fleeting Ranieri-esque miracles but the slow, measured progress you would normally expect.
Over the season run in, it was inescapable that there is a staleness running right through the squad, one which is ripe for overhaul… or at least there are positions that are simply in need of finally being resolved.
The “No 10” role, the “player in the hole”, the “Ross Barkley position” — call it what you will — has been a source of frustration for years now and Koeman’s admission that he wants to bring more productivity to the squad in time for next season was a response to a depressing lack of creativity and goals from players not named Lukaku in the side at times.
That Barkley himself wasn’t able to grasp the nettle in those final weeks and prove that he could be the Christian Eriksen-style inspiration, guiding light and standard bearer for the side illustrates why there appears to be a curious lack of urgency around his contract situation four weeks after the 2016-17 season ended.
Koeman’s ultimatum that the player make a decision over his future by the end of the season hasn’t prompted an announcement from the club over what the plan is regarding the midfielder and media speculation regarding potential destinations for him should he elect not to extend his contract has gone almost deathly quiet this month.
The uncertainty is strangely symbolic of Barkley himself, a home-grown talent billed as the Academy product most likely to emulate the success of Wayne Rooney but whose progress seems to have stalled just when Everton — and, perhaps, his country as well — needed him to finally flourish into the star his early career hinted he could be.
A cracking goal to kick off the Roberto Martinez era and a starring role in the Spaniard’s often electrifying first season at the Goodison helm, which included a world-class solo effort at Newcastle, suggested that the next Toffee idol had arrived. A call-up to the 2014 World Cup followed but Roy Hodgson’s lack of faith left him kicking his heels on the bench for the most part, as he would two years later at Euro2016.
In between, Barkley showed flashes in a team otherwise moving sideways under Martinez, that he could grow into the kind of midfield fulcrum many envisaged he could be. The former boss experimented with him in wider and deeper roles with mixed success but his eye for goal and technical ability meant that he could always turn heads when he was on his game.
But despite finishing this past season with another six goals in all competitions and more assists than any other English player in the Premier League, Everton were generally left wanting when it came to their reliance on Barkley to be the playmaker and puller of strings in the centre of the park.
In many ways, those huge expectations have sat uneasily on the shoulders of the quiet, unassuming lad from Wavertree who you always thought would be an Everton player for years to come. His passion for the Blues is unquestioned and he could never be accused of hiding when the chips are down — who could forget how devastated he looked to be hooked from the disaster unfolding at Anfield in the last days of Martinez when all he wanted to do was try and drag his team back into the game.
However, at a time when Everton’s aims are focused on the top four and the Champions League, the team needed a player able to lead by example and contribute going forward the way Barkley’s early promise suggested he might and he hasn’t quite been able to fill the role.
He was by no means alone, of course — Kevin Mirallas remains an enigmatic and inconsistent presence; Gerard Deulofeu lost his way under Koeman; and Romelu Lukaku’s goals tally partially obscure an equally frustrating inability to take games by the scruff of the neck and press home his supposedly top-class credentials. But Barkley’s position in that all-important creative central role made his short-comings this season that bit more acute and partially explain his manager’s public criticism of him.
Nevertheless, fans became pensive when he wasn’t among the players who put pen to paper on new deals late last year even if there was a feeling that it would get done at some stage last term; that the boyhood Blue would eventually agree an extension to a contract that runs out next year.
Was there a degree of the club taking a local lad’s love of Everton for granted that is influencing his decision to stall over a new deal? He wants Champions League football, of course, but the argument that that is his primary motivator rings slightly hollow given how few elite-level suitors he seems to have.
Or is there a general indifference from Koeman who had not been reticent when it came to Barkley’s form or his expectations of him as a focal point of the team. Certainly, the dispassionate Dutchman will seek more reliable sources of guile this summer and would be unlikely to stand on ceremony for the 23-year-old regardless of his Blue ties.
Perhaps both factors are at play but, regardless, Barkley finds himself in an awkward position this summer. There was plenty of talk in the media about interest in his services from Tottenham along with Everton putting an outlandish £50m price tag on his head, but studying his form with a cold, analytical eye, it’s hard to see him justifying such a fee or being good enough for Mauricio Pochettino’s excellent Spurs team… or any of the top six, for that matter.
By the same token — and, no doubt, by Koeman’s own assessment — Barkley probably isn’t worth shattering the club’s wage ceiling for in the same way that Lukaku arguably is. If it is true that he has been offered £100,000 a week to stay at the club, many would view that as generous and, perhaps, a reflection of what he means to Evertonian pride at a fellow Blue and home-grown product fulfilling his dream. But he has done very little to justify extending beyond that, if that indeed is what the player himself is hoping given talk of as much as £140,000 being offered to Lukaku.
The apparent impasse or even his refusal to sign new terms — and, again, it’s what we as supporters must assume is the situation given the lack of any news regarding his contract talks — likely leaves Barkley with few options. One would be to wait out the final year of his contract (Koeman won’t counsel that but he may be overruled from above), most likely playing a reduced role in the Everton team should the recruitment team succeed in bringing in the player to provide more ammunition and goals from attacking midfield.
If his relationship with the manager is strained or if he has been wounded by Koeman’s treatment of him, then it’s probably not surprising that he finds himself in two minds at an important juncture of his career.
Given the chance to step out of the spotlight and assume a lesser role at Everton in 2017-18, it’s possible that Ross could re-find himself and his form in time to pen a new deal next summer rather than seek a move elsewhere. Again, there is every possibility that Koeman, needing funds for rebuilding, would refuse and that would make for an uneasy 12 months.
Another option, of course, would be to accept a transfer away from Goodison now to a mid-level outfit like West Ham to try a fresh start away from the hope in — and expectation of — him on Merseyside. It would feel strange to see someone so intrinsically linked with Everton playing in the colours of another club but football is a harsh mistress that often pays no mind to sympathy and romance.
Sentimentality doesn’t win silverware and that makes for an uncomfortable crossroads for the club, the fans and Ross Barkley himself — he either has to take one last chance to prove he can be everything Everton want him to be or seek a new challenge away from Merseyside. There are no easy answers for him but Koeman and Steve Walsh appear to be resolved to addressing the team’s weaknesses regardless – the club's single-minded need to progress means it has to be thus.
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