Ross Barkley and Aston Villa both find themselves in a slump in form over the past few months. After an electric start to the season, both Barkley and Villa were flying and the overriding feeling was that Villa needed to make his loan move permanent. Into the final stages of the 2020-21 campaign, that viewpoint seems to have completely flipped.
Out of the blocks on fire
Despite it being just a loan move from Chelsea, Barkley’s transfer probably went down as the ‘biggest’ of the Summer 2020 transfer window due to his profile and experience within the Premier League and at international level.
Capped 33 times for England, Barkley was viewed as a player that can light up a game at any moment with an attacking flair that could work hand in hand with good friend, Jack Grealish. Grealish even played a role in the recruitment of Barkley and up until his injury against Brighton & Hove Albion, it was all going to plan.
Dean Smith had talked about how he believed he could help Barkley get back into the England squad ahead of the European Championships held in 2021. He certainly gave England boss, Gareth Southgate, something to think about for the November 2020 international matches after he dazzled on his debut in the demolition of Liverpool at Villa Park, when he scored his first goal in claret and blue.
Another goal came in the very next game as his late goal secured the win away to Leicester City. In the final game before the international break, he added an assist for Ollie Watkins in the 3-0 win against Arsenal.
For a player who had only made two Premier League appearances for Chelsea last season, this form was a more than welcome surprise and made the rumored £30 million price tag seem like a solid piece of potential business.
Struggles with form and fitness
It all came to an immediate halt just four minutes into the first game after the November international break when Barkley picked up an injury that would keep him out of Villa’s next eight games. Any kind of injury that keeps a player out for a prolonged period of time will have an effect on their form, but this was the turning point for Barkley’s season and possibly, his Villa career.
He returned to action in late January, but looked a shadow of the player we had seen at the start of the season. Barkley seemed to be off the pace of the game and struggled with his fitness levels, being substituted in all three of his first starts after the injury.
A glimmer of light came against Southampton when Grealish and Barkley linked up superbly for Barkley’s third goal of the season. Villa hung on for three points that day, despite being second-best throughout the game. This could and maybe should have been the point Barkley gained confidence and kicked on.
However, what followed were four more starts and ultimately, four more frustrating performances in which all resulted in him being replaced in the final quarter of every game. Frustration also began to mount in the fan base, with speculation of a possible clause in his loan that stated he needed to start when fit and Smith’s selection of him was called into question by supporters. Since then, he has been a substitute for seven consecutive matches and has only been used in five of those.
What to do with him now?
With just the final set of fixtures ahead and Villa likely to finish comfortably in mid-table, what will Smith choose to do with Barkley now?
Europe seems a bit too much of a push and for the first time in three seasons, Villa’s fate for the next year has not gone down to the final game of the season. With the pressure off and Villa’s U23 & U18 sides performing so well this season (most notably Louie Barry, Aaron Ramsey, and Carney Chukwuemeka in attacking positions), Smith could look to embed some of these youngsters with a taste of Premier League action. Youngsters have been included in matchday squads this season, but with little to play for, more could be included in the run-in with minutes given to some, likely at the expense of Barkley.
The other side of the ‘pressure off’ argument is that this could be Barkley’s final chance to prove himself. Barkley could be given more starts and be encouraged to play with a freedom he may not have had in recent weeks when the team’s form has wavered.
As mentioned previously, Barkley is a player that needs confidence and given the opportunity to play without pressure, possibly coinciding with a return to the team for Grealish, could rekindle that early season form and give the Villa board more to ponder when his loan deal expires.
The final option would be for Smith to almost cut his losses and keep Barkley as a bench option, with relatively short appearances here and there. If this were to happen, it would be clear that Villa have come to terms with the fact that the loan move has not worked out how they would have liked and that a permanent move is unlikely. With the injury to Trézéguet, it would be a surprise for Smith to not give Barkley a fair opportunity, especially due to the current performances of Villa’s attack.
What could have been
It’s sad to see that on the whole, things have not worked out for Barkley and Villa. So much promise was shown early on and injuries are never easy to overcome, but his came at a crucial time. In a season like no other, played without fans throughout multiple lockdowns and a COVID outbreak at the club - it was always a tough ask for Barkley to bounce back.
We know Barkley is a very talented player, particularly shining for Everton in 2015/16 (eight goals and eight assists) and 2016/17 (five goals and eight assists), but it certainly feels as though he and Villa will part ways in the summer with the talented crop of youngsters ready to step into the first-team squad.