As the summer transfer window moved into its final minutes, a harsh reality became apparent for Ross Barkley. There was to be no move away from Chelsea, no loan spell to reinvigorate his career. He would remain with the Blues but on the fringes, without a squad number.
How did it get to this point for a player once compared by Roberto Martinez as a blend of Paul Gascoigne and Michael Ballack and likened to Wayne Rooney by Frank Lampard? That’s complicated.
Injuries have played their part. Off-field incidents too. There’s also been pure misfortune; Barkley had just started to thrive in a Chelsea shirt when the first Covid-19 lockdown hit and all football was suspended for three months.
Yet for Barkley to be 27 years old, theoretically in his peak years, and be unwanted, how has that happened? And what comes next?
Those questions were put to Thomas Tuchel yesterday ahead of Chelsea’s game against Aston Villa, the club Barkley spent last season on loan with. The Blues head coach tried to answer as best he could, but he simply hasn’t worked with the former Everton star long enough to know why things haven’t worked out as expected.
“Maybe all of us here, to be honest, don’t have the answers,” Tuchel said. “I’m sure that he himself worries a lot about the situation: ‘How can it come so far that right now I’m like in between the chairs and don’t really know where I belong and what my role is?’
“I don’t have these answers because I don’t follow him long enough and don’t know him long enough. All I say is that like, for example, with him, and with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, I’m super happy.
“We had the in-house game here in the last week and we just spoke about it. The two did fantastically. They trained very, very well despite their personal situations, which is maybe sometimes not the nicest one to have as a competitor, as a boy who has dreams, high hopes, and loves his sport.
“So all the advice I can give to Ross right now and what I did say was: stay humble, get it off your shoulders, all the opinions, all the expectations from everybody around, all the past, what could have been, if I did this, if I did that. It does not help at the moment, being the nice guy that you are when you come here, he’s got to now be better and better.
“At the moment, he is part of the training group, a regular part of the training group, and now it’s most important that he accepts the situation. He does not have to love the situation but he needs to accept it in a positive way.
“This is what I feel from him and hopefully, he can keep this spirit up. It’s not that easy because we have a lot of players for his positions.
“Normally you expect – and this is not a secret – somebody to go on loan from Chelsea to Aston Villa that he is the main guy at Aston Villa and then he comes back and takes the next steps. This has not happened, so maybe there is a long way to go, but you never know.
“Enjoy the wave, be the best you can be every single day. I have a feeling he is doing this and not thinking and worrying too much about the bigger situation. There is, for me, no other advice I can give him at the moment.”
Barkley lost his No.8 shirt to Mateo Kovacic this summer but has since been handed the No.18. He has also been registered in Chelsea’s Premier League and Champions League squads and has been training with the first team during the international break.
The door at Chelsea is not completely closed for the midfielder, who only two years ago was starting back-to-back matches for England. And Tuchel has told Barkley what he must do if he’s to come close to being the player many expected during his formative years.
He has the ability,” Tuchel said. “I absolutely mean it. He can train with this group and he has the ability to train on the same level. But this is not enough.
“I saw so many players who can train on certain levels but there is so much more to it, to becoming a regular Premier League top player. So let’s see. It’s never too late and I will give him the support that I can. We need to wait and have patience.”