A masterplan. That is how Ross Barkley describes the approach that helped Aston Villa to thrash Liverpool 7-2 on his debut for the club three weeks ago. Judging by how things have gone for him and Villa so far, the same word could apply to his decision this month to join Dean Smith’s side on loan from Chelsea for the rest of this season. His two appearances have yielded two wins for Villa and two goals for Barkley. They look made for each other.
“I couldn’t have asked for it to go any better so far,” Barkley says. “The game against Liverpool was the perfect way to get up and running. When it was 5-2, we were all saying: ‘We can go for more goals here, they’re up for the taking.’ It could have been a lot more but 7-2 against the champions is a statement to everyone else in the league that we’re ready to kick on this season.”
Villa avoided relegation only on the final day last season but a new confidence is sweeping through the club and Barkley both feeds off it and fuels it.
He explains that he feels this could be the season where Villa climb and he, at 26, shreds the tag of unfulfilled talent and regains his place not just in the England squad but in the starting XI in time for next summer’s European Championship. He alludes to the frustration of watching England play in major tournaments on TV or, even worse, from the bench, and refers to “the maturity that is now in my game” as he adds: “I have an obsession to improve.”
Barkley knows he will add to his 33 England caps only if he continues to thrive at Villa, which he fully expects to do. First, because Villa are even better than he thought they were before he arrived. That is not just because of other recent recruits such as Emiliano Martínez (“a brilliant goalkeeper, really top-class”) and the striker Ollie Watkins (“I heard even before I arrived that a few of the lads were surprised by just how good he is”) but because players who were rather thrown together after the club’s promotion from the Championship last year have found a groove.
“I’ve been surprised by the quality of the group of players, to be honest, for how low they finished last season. There are some really great players in the squad. Another thing I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of great communicators.”
That also goes for the rest of the staff. “I’ve had a lot of one-on-one meetings with the manager, talking about how we can improve, what we lacked last season and what he learned from last season,” Barkley says. “I’ve been through difficult spells with Everton previously where we were struggling and then something just changed. The manager explained to me that something clicked here towards the end of last season and I’ve seen that.
“There is a lot more understanding of how to win games in this league. We now have players who are established and we look really solid. Everyone is working really hard for each other. In training on Wednesday tackles were going in all over the place and players were getting angry because they wanted to win. That’s great to see. There will be difficult times ahead but we will stick together and this season will be 10 times better than last.”
He expects a similar trend on an individual level, too. As satisfying as the win over Liverpool was, the win at Leicester may have been even more auspicious for Barkley, as he struck the winning goal in stoppage time. Last season he probably would have left the action by then. Although he does not have a bad word to say about Chelsea, it is a fact that of his 21 league appearances last season, only four lasted 90 minutes. Smith has said he hopes to play a settled side as often as possible and that is music to Barkley’s ears.
“The other night I scored in the last minute, previously I would have come off around the 60th,” he says. “The last minutes of the game are when defenders get tired and that’s when the rewards are. By staying as fit as I can this season and playing every minute, I’m sure there will be many more goals to come.
“To put in consistent performances you need consistent game time. For me it was an exciting project to come here and play consistently because I haven’t had that for a couple of years. It was just stop-start constantly. Now I’m finding my rhythm and I feel really good. I’ve played two full 90s and I’m really looking forward to the next game. Now I’ve got a clear mind and every game that comes I know what I need to do.”
He also knows how to do it. He says experience has made him better. “I’m 26. I understand the game a lot easier now. Understanding where the goals are, how to mix things up, when to run in behind, drop deep, shoot from distance, create goals from wide areas or central areas, play the ball out wide and go into the box, anticipate balls at the back post, make runs from both. Just an understanding of where the goals are. Because I’ve got that now, I know that for the rest of my career I’m going to score a lot more goals than I have previously.”
He has heard grumbles about his judgment in the past but does not believe that criticism is still valid. “My decision-making is much better than when I was younger,” he says. “Obviously if you’re trying to create, you’re not always going to be perfect but most times I do pull it off because of the maturity that’s in my game now. During the lockdown I watched a lot of my games. That’s just because I have an obsession to improve and I love football.”
That last point is worth elaborating on. Although Barkley is sometimes labelled an underachiever, he is one of only three members of the England Under‑17s team that won the European Championship in 2010 who play in the Premier League. Conor Coady and Jack Butland are the others, with the rest playing in lower leagues or no longer in the profession. So maybe Barkley deserves credit for what he has done.
“That’s from a young age, never changing how much I love the game. Nothing else comes in the way of that. Football and family, that’s all. Come to training and always work as hard as you can, always trying to improve. If you go through a difficult spell, accept it for what it is and try to learn from it. I’m always trying to improve, even on the mental side of the game. I’ve improved a lot over the years and I’m at the age now where … even in the past couple of years I knew I was ready, if I get regular game time, to show how good I am.”
He yearns to show it at an international tournament. After featuring in all three group games at the 2014 World Cup, he was an unused squad member at Euro 2016 and injuries ruined his hopes of making the 2018 World Cup. “Playing for England should mean everything to every player from England. For this season the focus is to help Villa finish as high as possible and then to make the Euros squad and be playing.
“Watching from the bench is the worst because you believe you can help the team out but you’re not given the chance. But that gives you the hunger to go away and work harder and not let that happen again. I’ve been out of the squad recently because of a lack of game time but hopefully I’ll make the next one and kick on from there. I believe that if I keep putting in performances here, that will take care of itself.”
The Guardian Sport