Ross Barkley’s future has, for much of this season, appeared uncertain. With his contract up next year, the Everton midfielder has been linked with a move away. At the same time, doubts have surrounded his performances, which for some time looked to have stagnated after an exceptional 2015-16 campaign. Yet, just as his star was on the wane, a new academy graduate took the spotlight.
At the age of 18, Tom Davies is Everton’s latest star in the making. His first start of this term came against Southampton where, through registering an assist and putting in a consummate performance, he earned more regular game time. As a reward for his efforts, the youngster was recently handed a new five-year contract. Speaking about the deal and what it represented, Davies was quick to mention Barkley’s influence.
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“It means everything to me to get a chance to be in the Everton first team and to try to stay there. It's an unbelievable feeling,” he said.
“I used to look at Mikel Arteta and aspire to be out there playing alongside my heroes and, obviously, Wayne Rooney and Ross Barkley, who came through the academy here too, have been inspirational figures for me.”
Yet, just as Barkley’s graduation to the first team inspired Davies in the exact same pursuit, Davies’ emergence as a first teamer has helped to bring back the best of Barkley, something that had previously been largely missing this season.
The two players have taken to the pitch as starters in Premier League action on ten occasions in 2016-17. Of those ten occasions, only three have seen Barkley take up a central midfield role. In the other seven matches, he has operated in a higher or wider area, while Davies has filled in a more central berth.
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Essentially, in a purely positional sense, Davies has freed up Barkley to take a more advanced role. This has been facilitated by the fact the 18-year-old brings the creative presence to central midfield that Barkley was previously asked to provide.
With his low socks and long hair, Davies does have the physical resemblance of an old-fashioned regista. He’s still a long way off a ‘Merseyside Pirlo’ moniker, but his technical characteristics have given manager Ronald Koeman valuable selection options.
Most of Everton’s other central midfielders are canny defensive protectors or energetic ball-winners; indeed, all of Idrissa Gueye, Morgan Schneiderlin and Gareth Barry fall into one of these two roles. However, thanks to Davies’ composure, ball control, educated passing and positional awareness, Koeman now has a natural creative presence in the centre.
Barkley is far from technically limited, but he always appeared constrained when taking up a deeper role. Yet, with Davies having successfully assumed that mantle, he is now free to play with greater license to roam.
Without so many constrictions and with the freedom to take up dangerous spaces in more offensive areas, Barkley has been able to make full use of his own unique skill set. Standing at 6’2”, he is a powerful, at times explosive, attacking midfielder with the physical capacity to resist the attention of markers and breeze beyond defenders. He also possesses a great deal of pace and the desire to attack opposing back lines. In addition, his occasional selfishness and audacity – see his celebration before scoring in the 6-3 win over Bournemouth in February – are more suited to a role of less defensive responsibility.
Barkley’s more advanced role has also minimised his weaknesses, namely the lack of necessary positional discipline to effectively undertake a central midfield berth, particularly when – as Koeman’s Everton sometimes do – the team is lined up with a two-man central midfield.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the effect Davies has had on his own game, Barkley has been full of praise for his younger team-mate.
“Tom has been great since the start of the season. He’s playing really well and with plenty of confidence,” he told Sky Sports recently.
“You can see all the fans are loving him. He’s putting in good performances and long may it continue.”
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According to WhoScored.com’s data, Barkley’s performances have been substantially better when playing alongside Davies. Indeed, in their ten games together in the starting lineup, Barkley has dipped below a performance rating of 7 only once, and has achieved an average rating of 7.44. This is particularly noteworthy considering his average rating for the season as a whole is 7.18.
And the benefits of playing in a higher or wider position have also been seen in Barkley’s contribution to goals scored. In his ten Premier League outings alongside Davies, he has set up four goals for team-mates, while in his 18 other appearances he has assisted on just three occasions.
Everton’s form as a team has improved thanks to the rise of Davies and the subsequent alteration to Barkley’s role. In the aforementioned ten fixtures, they have won six, drawn two and lost two, scoring 21 goals and conceding a mere seven. If that form were extrapolated out over the 30 games they have played so far this term, they would be third in the league with the second-best attack and the joint-best defensive record.
Sky Sports analyst Danny Higginbotham believes that Davies has actively improved Barkley’s form.
“He (Davies) has brought another element to Barkley's game because what we found earlier in the season is that he had little room for manoeuvre when he got the ball,” Higginbotham said.
“Now, all of a sudden, Davies is getting beyond him and because of that Barkley is getting that extra time and space.”
Evidently, Davies’ emergence has had a positive effect on both Barkley and, as a result, Everton. But it is yet to be seen exactly how long this dynamic, homegrown duet will last at Goodison Park. Just as Davies’ contract with the club has been extended, Barkley’s is edging ever closer towards its expiration.
They may not last long, but the Davies-Barkley partnership has already proven to be an extremely effective one for both players and the team as a whole.