Everton fans may have watched Ross Barkley play his last game at Goodison. Or there may have been a lot of fuss about nothing. An event has occurred but we’re unsure how to conclude it. Things are coming to a head. Before they do, let’s take stock of Barkley’s season.

Ross Barkley audaciously celebrated before scoring the final goal in Everton's 6-3 win over Bournemouth.

Overlooked by England at the Euros, Barkley prepared for the new campaign with a new manager well-briefed in his struggles. “He needs to improve. He is not just a talent anymore“, said Ronald Koeman. “He needs more cleverness in his game“. After Roberto Martinez’s negligent indulgence, Koeman offered some tough love. Eventually, it began to pay off.

Barkley works harder to provide cover, wins 0.4 more aerial duels per game than last year (1.2), and has added ‘fouling Liverpool players’ to his WhoScored list of strengths. Going forward, Barkley has often controlled games and looked comfortable on the right. Unfortunately, he started no games in central midfield.

Barkley’s free role sees him drift into the centre, occupying familiar spaces with the added escape of the wing. Seamus Coleman proved the perfect foil until his season-ending leg break. He helped Barkley produce his best form – six assists and a goal in eight games at one point. There was however a new factor to consider.

Tom Davies arrived like a blessing and a curse, benefiting Barkley’s game before becoming another stick to beat him with. The pair combine well, their talents overlap, they both get between the lines. When one spreads the play, the other can get closer to Romelu Lukaku. Creative academy talents combining in midfield – all good, right?

Ross Barkley celebrates scoring with fellow Everton Academy graduate, Tom Davies.

Wrong. Some Evertonians see Davies’ (24-game) emergence as a reason to get rid of Barkley. Football is a game of opinions; that one is particularly mad. Like throwing out your favourite t-shirt because you bought a new one. If Davies and Barkley were fighting over the last midfield spot, there’s a discussion to have but let’s get Arouna Kone and Tom Cleverley fully out the system before we get to that.

Less is more

Koeman has reigned Barkley in this season. Just 2.8 attempted dribbles per game is around half what we’ve come to expect. Fewer shots also (2.3 per game down from 2.5 last year), and fewer from outside the box (1.3 per game down from 1.5). These adjustments improved Barkley and he’d do well to continue on this path, but perhaps inevitably, they led to a drop in productivity.

The bottom line is he has under-delivered. Five goals, eight assists: insufficient for a player with “Champions League” aspirations. These are not particularly worrying numbers during a season of addressing flaws, and Barkley has actually been pretty unlucky with his shooting, but succeeding at Everton, or indeed anywhere else, depends on him scoring more.

The benefits of Barkley’s graft will be visible next season but by that time, he must have ironed the chronic hesitation and flustered pass selection which undermines him. He still makes rookie errors to bemuse even his biggest admirers. But let’s not forget, only Christian Eriksen, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Mesut Ozil have created more chances than him this season. He needs to improve the quality of those chances but at 23, that’s not bad at all.

The endless speculation about Barkley’s future has been a distraction, but then he has contributed to this by not signing a new deal. He’s one of the most important players in the current squad, he’s been at Everton for more than half his life, he supports the club. So why is there no agreement?

Everton's Ronald Koeman offers some tactical advice to Ross Barkley.

Money? Perhaps. Everton offered Barkley a new deal before he produced his best form. If it is a low offer, the club is wealthy enough to correct that. It could be an issue with Koeman. The Dutchman has been good for Barkley but has overstepped the mark on occasion when willingly divulging ultimatums and club policy. Koeman’s honesty is well-received, so too would be his diplomacy.

Could Tottenham’s interest hold sway? Of course. Mauricio Pochettino is an impressive figure; he will lead Spurs into a new era full of confidence. But the move would be reckless in the short-term. With Spurs likely to add to their squad, and Erik Lamela to return, Barkley would be starting a World Cup year as the eighth or ninth best midfielder at a new club. Or he could keep getting indulged at Everton.

Throughout it all; the speculation, getting dropped, Koeman serving up headlines on a platter, recent personal issues away from football, being an unused England squad member for seven straight games; Barkley has done nothing wrong. No press leaks, no passive aggressive social media posting (about Everton), no unnecessary interviews, no tantrums, no sulking. Nothing. Given the stick he’s taken over the years, Barkley deserves credit for his conduct.

At the end of an interesting, eventful year, Barkley has improved but not sufficiently to persuade his doubters. He’s probably about five or six goals/ assists short and is yet to break his habit of making bad decisions, but under Koeman, Everton have a more well-rounded, more versatile player in their midst. While he’s always been capable, he has now proven himself to be coachable, but it may be too late for Everton to fully benefit.

With a bit of luck, we’ll soon be able to consign Barkley’s last Goodison goal to the far reaches of the mind reserved for end-of-season winners against Watford.
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By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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