Gareth Barry and the Importance of Context

Chris Marks 29/12/2016  34 Comments  [Jump to last]

When Gareth Barry signed for Everton, initially on loan, in the summer of 2013, there were mixed feelings amongst Evertonians. On the one hand here was an experienced player with an FA Premier League winner’s medal to his name who would help to fill a gap in our midfield created by the departure of Marouane Fellaini. On the other, he was a 32-year-old with a lot of miles on the clock who was one of the most booked players in Premier League history and whose legs looked as though they might have gone.

Fast forward three years and I don’t think many Blues fans would have felt so ambivalently about him. Barry has been a rock at the heart of our midfield, making over 100 league appearances, leading by example when times were tough and even chipping in with the odd important goal. Yet the problem remains that Gareth will be 36 in February and has nearly 800 matches under his belt. That’s a lot of strain for anyone’s body, and so the question remains – when and how should Everton move on from Barry?

Stats are so popular nowadays. Analysis of performances using data has become a vital part of the modern game, but it’s almost impossible to tell from looking at Barry’s displays that he is in any way on the wane. Even given the stellar midfield displays of Idrissa Gana Gueye since his arrival on Merseyside, his more experienced team-mate’s numbers still look very impressive. He ranks second for tackles (44) and passes (849) of anyone in the Everton squad, and his 28 clearances are the most of any non-defender. To the naked eye he is often one of our best players, even when things have gone wrong around him.

This is where context becomes so important, because while Barry was racking up those impressive numbers this season, Everton were disappointingly losing to Burnley, Bournemouth and Southampton (and of course getting thrashed by Chelsea). It will not have escaped the notice of eagle-eyed Evertonians that our best midfield display of the season arguably came against Arsenal when, with Barry rested, Gueye, McCarthy and Barkley worked their socks off to create the platform for a turnaround win against the Gunners.

So couldn’t Gareth have played in this way for us? Couldn’t he charge around, harrying and pressing, winning the ball back quickly and efficiently? We’ve all seen how often he is top of the list for distance covered, frequently using his intelligence and experience to ensure he is in the right place to make a timely tackle or interception. Isn’t this what Ronald Koeman wants and Everton need? Again this is where Old Father Time is against him, and where he needs to be used more sparingly – or in a slightly different role.

As noted in a previous article, Koeman wants his Everton team to press aggressively, high up the pitch, to quickly win the ball back close to the opponents’ goal and create likely goalscoring opportunities. This is where the defensive side of our midfield game stops being about distance covered (which is driven by a player’s stamina and reading of the game) and starts being more about about pace (or acceleration off the mark) as well as tactical awareness and of course aggression. Barry has never been quick and at nearly 36 cannot be expected to charge around like men ten years younger than him, which is so vital an aspect of the Koeman game plan.

We saw in the Arsenal game (and for the first half of the derby) that with three like Gueye, McCarthy and Barkley, we’ve got a chance of playing this way. Add to that Tom Davies (and possibly Morgan Schneiderlin) and you’ve got the ingredients of an impressive Premier League midfield unit. The oldest of those five players are only 27 (Gueye and Schneiderlin) - the youngest of course just 18 - and with only Gueye shorter than 5ft 10in, there’s plenty of physical presence there too.

Out goes Barry then, surely. Well not quite. Or, not yet. Sure, Gareth Barry can’t play that way for Everton at his age, but he brings other qualities to the team that shouldn’t just be discarded. Whilst never having been a vocal leader who will grab a team-mate by the scruff of the neck and bawl at him, his quiet style of leading by example and keeping a cool head could be highly beneficial for younger members of our midfield such as Davies, Liam Walsh and yes, Ross Barkley too. He’s also one of the few Everton players well versed in the game’s darker arts, being more than capable of committing a subtle tactical foul to break up play when needed, or buying a cheap free kick from an opponent – an unattractive but vital part of any successful team’s makeup.

There is also the aspect of different matches requiring different styles. Aggressive, hard pressing works well as a template in many circumstances – particularly when you’re trying to stop a fluent passing side from getting into their rhythm (Arsenal, Liverpool), but there’s more than one way to skin a cat, as the old adage goes. Teams who sit off Everton and who are happy to concede possession will need unpicking and here Barry’s accurate and often thoughtful passing could be very important.

Sure, this approach hasn’t always worked this season, but I don’t think Barry is to blame here. Rather we need to reshape his role within the team slightly to bring the best out of him while still ensuring we have sufficient possession and defensive cover to dominate matches. Barry has spent the majority of this Everton career playing as a defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, with the likes of McCarthy and now Gueye chasing down opponents alongside him. With the number 18’s age catching up on him he cannot be expected to cover so much ground anymore, and this is where the 4-3-3 comes in.

In a 4-3-3 with one defensive midfielder (a template used by many teams, but most successfully by Barcelona), the one holding player can really play deep, almost as a third centre back (think Sergio Busquets), concentrating on keeping his position and holding the team in a solid shape, while distributing the ball from the back of midfield. In order to have Barry playing anything like this role you need to have energy alongside him. Gueye, Davies, a fit McCarthy or even Barkley (who also offers more creativity) could work hard to win the ball in front, allowing Barry to mop up loose ends and get us on the attack quickly.

Using a shape like this will allow Barry to continue featuring regularly in Everton’s first team, while also permitting Koeman to manage his game time (as will become increasingly necessary with age). Gueye (or Schneiderlin) could arguably perform a similar role in his place, or indeed as the two holders in the more common 4-2-3-1 with a ‘10’ in front of them. I won’t go as far as to say that this would allow Barry to continue for Everton until he’s past his 40th birthday, but it could well prolong his usefulness to our team as it is reshaped into a more dynamic side.

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Reader Comments (34)

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Gordon White
1 Posted 29/12/2016 at 19:12:22
I couldn't agree more. I would like to see him on the coaching staff when he hangs up his boots. The thinking man's footballer.
Gary Reeves
2 Posted 29/12/2016 at 19:16:44
Lost me at the bit where you included "Barkley... work hard to win the ball back" in the same sentence.
Steve Hogan
3 Posted 29/12/2016 at 19:32:32
There's so much that's accurate about this article. Barry has been a great servant in his time at Everton, you could see why Benitez during his time across the park, tried his hardest to recruit him from Villa.

I still believe he has a big role to play this season, even if he is unlikely to play three consecutive games when they are grouped together, his contribution to the team, and perhaps more importantly to the younger player's around him simply can't be underestimated.

Phil Bellis
4 Posted 29/12/2016 at 20:09:09
A proper Everton player, model pro but crafty with it. I whimsically try to evaluate modern players in relation to our past sides... Barry in his prime would not be out of place in the great teams of the 60s and 80s and, even now, has a lot to offer, with the right players supporting him.

Hope he stays on the staff when the legs finally go.

Patrick Murphy
5 Posted 29/12/2016 at 20:30:57
Phil (#4),

I might not go quite as far as you, in saying that Barry would have graced those great Everton teams, but doubtless he would have helped Moyes's teams to achieve a little more than they managed, and as someone elsewhere on ToffeeWeb mentioned he would have been a better option than Phil Neville. He's a fine player who still upholds the best standards.

Unfortunately we got him in the twilight of his career rather than at his peak. He will, one day, given a fair break, become a manager – if not at Everton, then elsewhere... that is of course if he wants to remain involved in the game when he hangs up his boots.

Phil Bellis
6 Posted 29/12/2016 at 20:38:46
Agreed Patrick, but I'd put him in before Tommy Jackson, Alan Harper et al.. I think he'd have been brilliant in front of the Rat, for example.
Michael McCarthy
7 Posted 29/12/2016 at 20:54:52
In another thread, I have made the suggestion Barry plays in front of the back 4. Play Davies and Barkley with Gueye playing behind Lukaku and AN Other.

Gueye's energy further up the field, chasing down, putting defenders under pressure. You might say (and I agree) that's Lukaku's job, but he doesn't do it. So play to his strengths. Davies provides energy; Barkley with movement in front of him will deliver.

Dave Abrahams
8 Posted 29/12/2016 at 21:03:45
Phil (#4 and #6), I agree with your assessment of Gareth Barry. When Liverpool failed to sign him, I was made up. I'm convinced he would have given them the balance, on the left side of midfield, to go on and win the league that season.

Past his best now, obviously, but can still play his part in helping the team to improve and maybe give us something to cheer about before he eventually retires or moves on.

Andy McNabb
9 Posted 29/12/2016 at 23:08:10
Excellent article, Chris. As soon as I saw the word 'context' in the title, I knew this would be a well thought-out piece.

I do hope he stays on when his playing days finish. He was a breath of fresh air when he arrived at the Club and is, I believe, still an excellent influence. I would have loved to have got Milner as well, as he has a very similar attitude to the game.

Incidentally, I agree with the 4-3-3 idea. I had previously thought that only the likes of Barcelona had the players capable of using it. In actual fact, to my surprise, I found last season that it gave the team I coach a degree of flexibility and opened up a whole raft of options not previously available.

Mick Davies
10 Posted 29/12/2016 at 00:15:43
He instantly won us over with that goalsaving tackle on Eto'o after another Howard gaffe. We won that game thanks to that moment. The remainder of that season, he was a perfect foil for McCarthy's amphetamine like graft, setting up attacks, goals and even scoring a few.

The next couple of seasons, he naturally felt the pace of the Premier League a lot more with Macca's injuries and the disjointed make up of Roberto's sides. I don't think he can contribute too much on the pitch anymore, but that contract must have been designed with a coaching role in mind.

I hope so, as he has been a model professional since signing, and I reckon he has a lot to offer the younger lads starting their careers with his advice and by example.

Roman Sidey
11 Posted 30/12/2016 at 00:55:19
Barry could definitely still do another couple of seasons if he's used sparingly. Is probably the most intelligent player Everton have had in an age. His set-piece is actually wildly underrated. I would also love to see him in the dugout in the future too.
Charles McCann
12 Posted 30/12/2016 at 03:06:39
Never been a fan of Gareth Barry. Far too slow and gives possession away too often. Only recently are people realising that he is a problem in the centre of midfield. Hopefully McCarthy is not out for very long. it's a shame Gana will be away for a month or so. Maybe Davies will get an opportunity though. I know I seem to be in the minority with this view but that's how I see it.
Danny Broderick
13 Posted 30/12/2016 at 08:12:35
There needs to be a changing of the guard now, given Barry's age. There's no doubt in my mind, though, that he's held the midfield (and at times the team) together in the last year or two.

All of the other players in front of the defence have seemed so lightweight – he's often been the only one putting his foot in. Time's catching up with him, but he's done well for us...

Paul Burns
14 Posted 30/12/2016 at 09:28:19
I don't know why Everton are obsessed with defensive midfielders, sometimes playing 3 at once to the detriment of the team as a balanced and attacking unit. Despite these numbers and some, at times, much coveted defenders, our defending has been pathetic for the last 2½ years. The opposition are allowed to invade dangerous areas of the pitch and rain in crosses virtually unchallenged at times so the strategy has failed dismally.

I like Barry but think he isn't/wasn't as good as another master of the dark arts, Don Hutchinson, a vastly underrated player who was similar to Barry in many ways but, in my opinion, possessed more in the way of guile and goal threat than Gareth.

Everton should decide on picking the best defensive midfielder, just one, and concentrate more on our attacking threat which has been neglected for years. The defenders take responsibility for defending and, if they're not up to it, replace them.

Having a defensive minded team who can't defend is killing us.

John Audsley
15 Posted 30/12/2016 at 10:46:51
I would play Barry in a back 3 alongside Williams and Holgate. His distribution and common sense would teach Mason a lot.

Don H was a very underated player and a bastard with it. We need someone with his attitude in the midfield now.

Chris Williams
16 Posted 30/12/2016 at 10:59:50
Gareth Barry will be around for a good while yet and quite rightly so.

He is one of those players who you don't notice too much, but when sat at Goodison you can notice the fact that he's always in space, always available for his team mates, and the amount of running he does to achieve this. He's not the worst passer in the team either.

He's canny and intelligent. I bet if you asked other players about him they would be universal in his praise.

Neil Sagar
17 Posted 30/12/2016 at 11:10:21
You don't need great footballing insight to realise Barry and Jagielka are the type of players that need replacing right now. Hopefully Koeman will sort it out by the summer if not January.

For me they are at best bit-part players to use against lower league opposition in cup games or in slow-paced matches; any speed to a game and they look badly vulnerable.

Just look at what has happened to John Terry at Chelsea, frankly football is a results business and there's no room for sentiment.

Dave Williams
18 Posted 30/12/2016 at 11:59:39
John (#15) this would be another possible use for him as he played CB for Villa before moving to midfield as a youngster.

He is a class act and used sparingly can still contribute and it would not surprise me to see him given an hour tonight before making way again for Tom.

Any young player on the staff should suck every bit of information and advice from him whilst he is around and certainly a place on the coaching staff should be considered.

Eddie Dunn
19 Posted 30/12/2016 at 13:37:35
I have been a Barry fan, his experience has helped us over the last few years. It was significant though, watching the Arsenal game, that the midfield swamped their opposite numbers, with an energy previously unseen this season.

He has been an outstanding professional and presumably looks after his body to still be performing at this level. However, like Jagielka, he must be eased out of the first eleven to allow us to become more combative.

I have no idea if he is good coaching material, he plays with intelligence, and when interviewed, is articulate, so perhaps he is the type. I would imagine he is just enjoying still playing at this level, as he will know that his career can't go on for ever.

Alan Bodell
20 Posted 30/12/2016 at 15:23:24
He's never let us down and i'd imagine all the dressing room look up to him and even with lack of natural stamina looming he can still be an important player even from the bench, a very good signing.
This week a sky newsclip interviewed him on his approaching Giggs PL appearances and he offered Slippy G. as the best opponent he ever faced errrr, wash ya mouth out Gareth.
Frank Wade
21 Posted 30/12/2016 at 15:39:26
Great article Chris. I agree with your assessmeants of past and possible future roles. As well as being on the spot in that defensive role, Barry is also the one most likely to try to play a defence splitting pass. Unfortunately, especially against the high tempo teams in away games, he finds it difficult to get a foothold in the game and drops further back. This was illustrated in the recent derby in the second half, when we were a bit overrun in the middle.
i think Chris' suggestion of playing him with two others, typically Gana and Davies in a 433 would see us get a good return next season.
Steve Carse
22 Posted 30/12/2016 at 15:42:21
Barry is a players player. He always provides a route out for a defender in trouble or else struggling to get the ball forward. John Stones in particular has a lot to thank him for. Barry's attentive, covering presence meant he could fart around on the ball, looking poised and confident, yet knowing that if anyone made things too uncomfortable when on the ball Barry would be in space for him to lay the ball off to.
James Stewart
23 Posted 30/12/2016 at 20:51:31
Crikey play until he is 40! No thanks!

Finished at this level and has been for some time. Too slow and a weakness that sides will target.

Martin O'Connor
24 Posted 31/12/2016 at 04:06:56
I don't agree, the one-year extension was wrong. Time has caught up; the derby and tonight against Hull show that. Davies is the future and should replace him now.
John Barnes
25 Posted 31/12/2016 at 08:21:05
Why should plans be put in place to accommodate Barry? Physically he is just not up to it any more at Premier League standard. Surely a team in Everton's supposed position, ie, progressive, moving to the next level etc. should and must look for better than Barry in the engine room.

The fact that he has been there so long merely adds weight to the fact that, in my opinion, he is the problem, not the solution. Stats show he so many touches he has, how many kms he covers etc. and yet opposition midfields stroll past him, draw fouls in dangerous positions and he contributes little in forward positions. So yes he can be seen to be influential, but in what way?

The past few weeks have illustrated it starkly even within a 90 minutes when he has come on or been withdrawn. Good pro obviously who should be kept on to imbue his professionalism on the coaching staff, playing squads etc. but beyond that he has nothing left to offer first team football at the level to which we are at, never mind aspire to.

Duncan McDine
26 Posted 31/12/2016 at 09:04:46
Well done for a decent article. I don't agree with all of your points, but it's the kind of post that encourages healthy debate as opposed to some of the mindless bickering we're used to on TW!

My opinion is that he regretfully needs replacing ASAP. I've been hugely impressed by him for the majority of his time at Everton, but if we are to progress as a team, we shouldn't look to build a strategy around an obsolete component.

The fact that some players make it to mid-late 30s while still playing top level football is beyond me. I'm 37 and have felt like an old useless fart for 3 or 4 years playing in a very poor league!!!

Paul Burns
27 Posted 31/12/2016 at 09:36:09
Certain stats are hiding other deficiencies in Barry's game.

What's the old saying about statistics and damn lies?

Alex Parr
28 Posted 02/01/2017 at 00:24:10
Great article Chris, very well written and clearly thought out – I think its the first time I've read an article from you, but look forward to reading more.

To me, Gareth Barrystill has a part to play but I agree in a deeper Busquets role. Which perhaps goes against the style that Koeman is going for. But with two full backs so willing to bomb on and go forward, Barry is the type of player that is suited to such a dropping deeper DCM-sweeper type role.

However, we then lose his ability to put forward a pass to a team-mate, something which is noticeable amongst our midfield in that very few players actually seem to be able to do this.

Interesting reading though, thank you.

Chris Williams
29 Posted 02/01/2017 at 08:35:17
I think the main lesson of recent games is that you can play Jags or play Williams or play Barry, but you cannot play them at the same time.

Jags looks like he's going the same way as Distin who went very quickly at the end and who has never really been replaced. Williams is Jags' replacement by the look of it and Barry can no longer play as many minutes as before, but to play them all together I think was a gamble based on the fact that there was a need to rotate at a busy time and Hull was the easiest fixture on paper.

If Calvert-Lewin had scoredn the gamble could have paid off. However, it will be interesting to see the lineup against Southampton this afternoon.

Simon Jones
30 Posted 02/01/2017 at 15:08:07
Well thought-out piece. Let's put it like this: if we offered him for sale, there would be a queue of clubs in for him and not necessarily the league's strugglers.
Terry Underwood
31 Posted 12/01/2017 at 11:37:27
You cannot buy 800 games worth of experience. He would be a fantastic help to the youngsters. Goalkeepers have their own coach. Why not a bit of specialised midfield coaching?
Tony Draper
32 Posted 12/01/2017 at 14:25:19
I'm one of the crew that thought signing Barry was a mistake, it wasn't.

Sweet baby Judas, I wish we'd signed Gareth a decade back.

Utter class. Reminds me of the impact that Reid & Gray had on "The Class of 84". Yes he lacks pace, but Peter Reid never had any. I still worship Reid. And so do all of you.

He isn't mobile, but always in the right space. Dozy Barkley can still learn from "Old Father Time", I just don't think he pays attention in c!ass.

I wish he bloody well would, but I've given up. Prove me wrong, Ross. Tom Davies, is my new "True Blue" hope for our future.

Tony Draper
33 Posted 12/01/2017 at 14:29:00
Simon @30.

Excellent comment. So much content in so few words.

Tony Draper
34 Posted 12/01/2017 at 14:35:38
Terry @31.
Ditto my comment to Simon above.
Flawless.

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