By Ewan Roberts at the Emirates Stadium
Sunday's encounter between Arsenal and Everton was as notable for the frenetic, end-to-end pace of the game as it was for the performance of Ross Barkley. The 20-year-old was electrifying in bursts, thrusting forward with a rare blend of power and grace, brain and brawn, and his display felt like it represented the handing over of the baton of England's next great hope from former incumbent Jack Wilshere.
With Roy Hodgson watching on from the Emirates stands, the Arsenal midfielder offered only a reminder of his fragility, receiving the now almost inevitable visit from the Gunners' medical team in a match he struggled to influence, while Barkley was finding gaps, breaking quickly, linking play and, particularly in the first half, causing havoc between the lines. There were touches of silky class and inventive flicks, all teamed with the underlying current of brute force typified by a stinging drive that nearly knocked Wojciech Szczesny off his feet.
Virtually his first involvement of the day saw him escape Mikel Arteta, a player whom he had been asked to target by manager Roberto Martinez, pick up the ball and drive forward towards goal. The Arsenal defence retreated in trepidation, as they would do several more times, before Barkley released Kevin Mirallas who whipped in a dangerous cross.
|EVERTON'S BARK AND BITE
|BARKLEY'S SEASON SO FAR
PASSES PER GAME
SHOTS PER GAME
|BARRY'S SEASON SO FAR
PASSES PER GAME
INTERCEPTIONS PER GAME
TACKLES PER GAME
Barkley would continue to find space in dangerous areas, receiving the ball and quickly venturing forward (he played more key passes than any other player on the pitch), an area of his game that Martinez has put a lot of work into developing. "We needed to find a role for him to be really specific off the ball and then to be able to express himself," said the Spaniard afterwards.
"He's so mature and he's got real love for the game, I've never seen an English player with that sort of mentality. Ross is quite unique in that department. He's got great potential but I think we need to give him time and, even as a real diamond of English football, he's not ready yet. But he's got absolutely everything."
Such warnings of patience weren't heeded by Gary Lineker, who rushed to liken Barkley to teary-eyed, dentist's chair enthusiast and football genius Paul Gascoigne. "I see bits of Gazza," agreed Martinez. "At times I see bits of [Michael] Ballack but Ross Barkley is quite unique. He's got incredible balance, he's really strong, really powerful and is developing incredible awareness. Technically you can compare him against any other nation's young players, whether Brazilian, Dutch or even Spanish."
Martinez is certainly showing greater faith in Barkley than was offered by former boss David Moyes. Despite a thoroughly promising pre-season ahead of the 2011-12 campaign in which he sparkled, Barkley would start just four Premier League games under the Scot over the next two years. Moyes opted instead to use safer options such as Phil Neville and Leon Osman in midfield, while Barkley was sent out on loan to Championship outfits Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United.
Perhaps the greatest contribution that Moyes has made to Barkley's career was bringing Marouane Fellaini with him to Manchester United, with the Englishman coruscating in the Belgian's absence. The form of the £27.5 million midfielder, coupled with the excellent performances of the men who have replaced him – the once stifled Barkley and recent recruits James McCarthy and Gareth Barry (who, together, cost just a third as much) – do not reflect well on Moyes either.
Barry, yet to taste defeat for Everton, is enjoying something of a renaissance following his loan move from Manchester City and his partnership with Barkley embodies the wonderful balance that Martinez has knitted together. "You don't win games if you've got 11 emerging talents or 11 old legs; what we've got is a very exciting blend," noted the former Swansea City and Wigan manager.
|5/1||Gareth Barry is 5/1 with BetVictor to be included in England's squad for World Cup 2014|
"He's an incredible, experienced footballer," gushed Martinez. "You know you are going to be exposed on the counterattack against Arsenal but Gareth Barry controlled those moments in transition extremely well. It's important for us to have a specialist in that position and, as I've said many times, I don't think England have got a specialist in that position, that No.6. Maybe Michael Carrick is the only other one."
Barry and Barkley could scarcely be further apart in terms of their respective career trajectories but there are similarities in how the two have transformed under Martinez, who has injected life into their hopes of going to Brazil next summer – a dream that would have been barely plausible before the Spaniard's arrival.
Despite Martinez's protestations to the contrary, Barkley looks primed to make an impact at the World Cup, while Barry - who has not played for England since picking up an injury in Hodgson's maiden game in May 2012 - brings qualities that the Three Lions sorely missed against Chile. In the shirt-soaking humidity of Manaus and against the Dark Arts of Italy, the Everton duo would offer positional intelligence, craft and heat-thwarting physicality and could make a telling impact next summer if given the opportunity.
Follow Ewan Roberts on