Why Man Utd transfer could be a bridge too far for resurgent ex-Chelsea and Everton star

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Ross Barkley has been linked with England caps and a move to Manchester United - but has he really been that good?

The rejuvenation of Ross Barkley has, quietly, been one of the most stunning subplots of the Premier League season so far. A player whose abortive Chelsea career made him the subject of scorn has resurrected his career at Luton Town and now The Sun has even gone as far as to report that Manchester United may be interested in signing him come the end of the season when his contract at Kenilworth Road expires. Is he ready for one more chance at one of Britain’s biggest clubs?

It's not really so long ago that Barkley was The Next Paul Gascoigne, when his fast feet and daring dribbling made him one of the most exciting attacking midfielders in the Premier League – but it feels like a lifetime has passed since his apparent prime, when he registered 29 goal contributions for Everton between 2015 and 2017. A lot of water has flowed beneath the bridge since then, and a lot of injuries have hampered his progress.

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Barkley had already come through medial collateral ligament damage before the serious hamstring injury that sidelined him for almost the entirety of the 2017-18 season. There were plenty more knocks and crocks to follow, but it was that hamstring that looked like the real killer. Once nimble and direct, the Barkley that played for Chelsea was a shadow of his former self.

As the fitness problems persisted and the public pile-on intensified, Barkley seemed to lose his way. Tabloid images of him topless in a nightclub in 2019 became evidence of a downward spiral in self-confidence and application, rather than proof of a one-off indiscretion. The storyline had been fixed – Barkley had thrown away his god-given talent.

A brief spell at OGC Nice didn’t really change the tune either, but suddenly the landscape looks different. Now 30 years old, Barkley has been quite brilliant for Luton this season. Although re-imagined as a more conservative ball-winning midfielder, he has rediscovered his zip and zest on the ball and there has been chatter about a return to the England squad, four and a half years after his last cap when he bagged a brace against Bulgaria in Euro 2020 qualifying. He looks healthy, hungry, and more than a little bit like Legend from Gladiators.

The Sun’s report that he could be a summer transfer target for Manchester United is the cherry on top. On the face of it, it seems unlikely but United have recent history with midfield reclamation projects in the shape of Christian Eriksen, and Ineos – who now have primary control of sporting matters at Old Trafford following the confirmation of Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s much-delayed takeover, have history with Barkley.

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That history may not be quite so helpful as The Sun think, and indeed the connection is one of the key hinges on which the report swings. One of the other clubs in Ineos’ ever-growing sports empire are Nice, where Barkley spent last season and where he frankly didn’t have a great deal of joy.

Although effective enough when on the field – Barkley scored four and assisted two in the equivalent of just under 11 matches’ worth of playing time – he was mostly restricted to the bench and to brief second-half cameos under both Lucien Favre and his eventual managerial replacement, Didier Digard. The French media were less than kind, too, with L’Equipe throwing barbs in his direction as they dished out some of their notoriously harsh marks-out-of-ten scores to him on several occasions.

All told, Barkley’s brief sojourn on the Côte d’Azur was not a success, and one would not imagine that his relative failure at Nice would inspire Ineos to try to repeat the trick – but then, Barkley has found his form and the player we are watching now is not the same one who struggled at Stamford Bridge and in France.

So how do his performances measure up when compared to the players United have on their books now? It depends whether you treat him as a number ten or as a more combative, more defensive midfielder.

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Pitting him against the obvious contender for the more advanced role, Bruno Fernandes, puts the Portuguese in front, even given his relatively subdued form this season. Both have managed the same number of goals (three) but Fernandes has generated well over double Barkley’s xG and has both assisted two more goals and generated more shooting chances.

Barkley does have a much better dribbling success rate, unsurprising when one considers the two player’s relative playing styles, but even on a downturn, Fernandes is more threatening in the final third. They also have similar numbers for tackles, interceptions and ball recoveries.

It’s when put up against United’s more defensively-minded midfield players that Barkley begins to shine a little more brightly. While he may have started his career as a piratical attacking force, this reborn version of the former Evertonian is a hard-grafting pressing machine. He doesn’t make as many successful tackles as Casemiro – hardly a shocking fact – but he wins the ball back more often and around twice as often as Scott McTominay or Sofyan Amrabat.

Part of that is, of course, due to the fact that he plays for a team which enjoys far less possession than United do and thus spends more time attempting to win the ball back in the first place, but there’s no debate that his defensive work has been impressive and underappreciated. His passing his been good, too, with a better accuracy rate than any of United’s deeper-lying midfielders, especially with direct passes forward.

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So he hasn’t just passed the eye test, and he isn’t generating hype solely by virtue of his return to form being such a good story. He is playing well, and the raw numbers back up what we’re seeing – and there is every indication that he’s playing at a level which is at least on a par with the players United are putting out each week.

That doesn’t mean he’ll be a summer target for them. This edition of Ross Barkley would make a good depth piece for a side chasing a top four spot but it would be a reach to say that’s been so good that he would be a starting level player for a team with Champions League aspirations. Nor are his numbers notably better than the players with whom he would likely be competing for a spot in the England squad for the upcoming friendlies against Belgium and Brazil. He is playing very well and deserves a great deal of praise for the determination and fortitude he has shown to pull himself back up to this level, but he is not outperforming other high-level players in the Premier League to any meaningful extent.

Barkley’s comeback is hugely impressive, and if Luton go down he will no doubt be rightly offered another chance by a Premier League side. Perhaps United will find themselves a midfielder short and sign him as a back-up, with much the same thinking as when they brought Jonny Evans back for a year. But Barkley is unlikely to be a starter at a club that far up the table, and it would be a shame to see him sat back on a bench after working so hard.

Besides, Barkley is also now in his thirties and has a torrid injury history. There is always the fear of one more knock, one more tear or strain, which puts the brakes on the whole story. The odds would seem to be stacked against him playing at his current level for years to come, and that alone may dissuade clubs from setting too much stock in his admirable current form. Let’s hope that he can keep it up, but let’s also slow the hype train down just a little. He is no longer the New Gascoigne, and the sky probably isn’t the limit anymore. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate what’s gone into his return to the limelight – his comeback is remarkable and he has proven a great many people wrong just to get this far. But it would still require a leap of faith to imagine him as a long-term solution to any questions that Manchester United or England are asking.

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