What is holding Everton's Ross Barkley and Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain back?

It is difficult to imagine two more complete footballers than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley. Both possess every attribute you could possibly desire in an offensive player; they have abundant pace, ample upper body strength, are swashbuckling dribblers, can see a pass and strike the ball powerfully with either foot.

However, the pair have experienced a trying last 12 months. Barkley, 22, is just a year younger than Chamberlain but the Arsenal man has been on the scene for longer having moved to the Emirates at 18. Both are on the cusp of transitioning from the status of young player to that of seasoned and battle-hardened professional. It is not unusual for players to reach a plateau in their development, but Barkley and Chamberlain need to start translating their obvious talents into something tangible.

Having talented individuals who can beat opponents in one on one situations is a sure fire way to create chances; how often do you see space emerge from nowhere after a successful dribble? However, it is vital for teams to find the happy medium between control and cutting edge. Chamberlain and Barkley bring plenty of the latter but not always enough of the former. In his criticism Barkley’s performance at Sunderland last month, Ronald Koeman noted that he ‘lost too many balls’. He and Chamberlain are high risk-high reward players who aren’t afraid to attempt the most difficult option. When the risks start to outweigh the rewards though, they can look quite careless.

 

This extract from Andres Iniesta’s autobiography was serialised in The Guardian included some fascinating material from Pep Guardiola about the importance of having players who can dribble in the last third. That said, like so many things in football, striking a balance is tricky. Too many dribblers in one team leaves them short of technical security and they will turn over possession too easily. Too few, and the team can look quite blunt. Everton and Arsenal already possess unpredictable customers such as Yannick Bolasie and Alexis Sanchez, and accommodating another mercurial talent in the side can be tricky.

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Barkley has been cleaner in possession that Chamberlain so far this term, with a pass completion rate of 85% compared to the former Saints man’s 74%. However, it should be considered that Barkley has been playing in a central position whereas Chamberlain has been on the flank. There is a greater onus to keep the ball in central midfield. Both are eye catching-talents, but the major criticism of both is that the good impression they create isn’t always backed up by numbers. Barkley went some way to addressing this last term, racking up eight goals and eight assists in the league; a career best. Chamberlain has just four league goals and three assists since the start of the 2013-14 season; a span in which he has made 59 Premier League appearances. The Arsenal man has been handicapped by some serious injuries, but these stats aren’t good enough.

Both are eye catching-talents, but the major criticism of both is that the good impression they create isn’t always backed up by numbers. Barkley went some way to addressing this last term, racking up eight goals and eight assists in the league; a career best. Chamberlain has just four league goals and three assists since the start of the 2013-14 season; a span in which he has made 59 Premier League appearances. The Arsenal man has been handicapped by some serious injuries, but these stats aren’t good enough.

 

The potential in both players is obvious, but there is greater focus on the collective in modern day football, both with and without the ball. Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp are flourishing in the early weeks of the season; and all three are ‘systems-based’ coaches. They play the players who fit their vision of football, rather than making accommodations, as Joe Hart and Daniel Sturridge will attest to. When you watch Barkley and Chamberlain, they look like players who struggle to fit into the fabric of a team.

They are free spirits, who probably found youth football ludicrously easy given their skill, size and pace. Both have difficulty establishing relationships on the field with their teammates. Compare and contrast them with other youngsters such as Dele Alli and Alex Iwobi. Those two are no more talented than Chamberlain and Barkley, but they possess a better ‘feel’ for the game and fit into the collective seamlessly. If the Arsenal and Everton men are to reach the height their talents demands, they must start using their attributes to meet the needs of the team.

Featured image: All rights reserved by Emrah Partal.

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