By George Ankers
"I see bits of Michael Ballack, bits of Gazza," says Everton manager Roberto Martinez. "He's one of the best I have seen," says Arsene Wenger. There is no question that Ross Barkley is going places and his next destination may well be Brazil – but those hailing him as England's World Cup saviour might want to slow down a little.
When Everton host Manchester City on Saturday, among those watching will be Jack Rodwell. He might even get a place on the City bench – though, given his side's need to go all-out to capitalise on Liverpool's slip at the top, that seems unlikely. Having left Goodison Park in August 2012 as one of the most promising English players around, many Premier League fans have by now forgotten all about him.
Rodwell is now close to sealing a deal to return to the Toffees on loan next season, his tail between his legs, and it would be to Barkley's benefit to take his team-mate's story as a cautionary tale.
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Rodwell, though, is proof that such a step up needs to be taken only when the player is properly ready. At the time of his transfer, the 23-year-old had more Premier League experience than Barkley does now (85 games to 47) and had similarly made his first steps into international football in minor matches to cautious praise. He has nonetheless found City a prohibitively ruthless home.
Injuries have been part of the problem; Rodwell has yet to enjoy a season without such disruption. But any young player needs a certain amount of match action each year in order to continue developing and, with so many elite players at a club like City, competition for that game time means that Rodwell has not been able to get that enough of that time even when fit.
At Goodison Park, he had yet to play in more than 26 games of a single Premier League season, and not all of them starts. At an age when he needs an increase in match exposure, he has appeared in a total of just 15 – only four in 2013-14. This has correspondingly seen his England opportunities diminish.
Contrast to Barkley, who is being championed by some as an essential pick for Roy Hodgson this summer to add youth and verve to the England midfield, even as a starter.
But, quite sensibly, the youngster is not even a guaranteed starter for Everton. Martinez has pitched his man-management perfectly, with Barkley handed 24 starts and nine substitute appearances in the league this season. The Toffees are giving him room to express himself without being in any way reliant on him – and he has rewarded them with seven goals and two assists.
From that level of involvement, to then plunge into the cut-throat battle for places at a Champions League club would be premature even if he knew that he would stay fit. If Barkley were to suffer a long-term injury at Everton next season, he would be assured of a place upon his return. At Manchester City, for example, he might never get another chance.
While not the subject of the same level of transfer speculation as Barkley is now, the Southampton star was always acknowledged as a prospect. By staying at a lower club and developing his technique over years of first-team football, the 25-year-old has become one of the most outstanding English talents around and will likely start ahead of Barkley in Brazil.
If Lallana moves to a team playing Champions League football next season, he will be ready to dive right in.
Barkley can get to that point. Playing a fuller season than Rodwell ever did may even see him get there faster but, while he could be useful as a substitute now, it would be unfair for England to rely on him before then.
As Wenger said, in the same breath in which he praised Barkley so highly in April: "It's good that he's not guaranteed a World Cup place because, at the World Cup, experience of big games is important in terms of the number of games you have behind you.
"You can't travel to a World Cup with too many players of that [level of inexperience]. When you go into a game you need to know that you get at least a certain quality and a certain quality is guaranteed by the experience of the player of big games."
Despite the difference in level, Barkley is likelier to play more of those big games as a starter at Everton than as a substitute higher up the food chain. His work under Martinez has done him so much good; hopefully Rodwell will be enough of a lesson for him to continue it, patiently, a while longer.
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