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May 1, 2014

Cast-off Gareth Barry thriving at Everton

The cameras may be trained on the directors' box. Or they may be focused at an executive box, that familiar haunt of the injured or ineligible footballer. The man himself is famously impassive. But should his expression change when Everton host Manchester City, Gareth Barry's reaction will be instructive.

- Whalley: Everton ready for summer spending

- O'Farrell: Seamus Coleman grows into left back role

The former England midfielder unites and divides the blue halves of Merseyside and Manchester. He is City's castoff and Everton's catalyst. He is the perfect player for Everton manager Roberto Martinez's brand of football and one who didn't suit City manager Manuel Pellegrini's style of play. On loan at Goodison Park from the Etihad Stadium, he is not permitted to play on Saturday. Perhaps his absence will prove to be the pivotal factor that allows City to win at one of their bogey grounds and proceed to the title. Maybe City will be left to lament a loan deal that, because of earlier setbacks, could cost them the crown. The shame, for Barry, is that Premier League regulations prevent him from playing. There is no doubt he would be particularly motivated to perform. If the picture painted by most of the City squad is that Pellegrini is a skilled man-manager who has rebuilt the bridges burned recklessly by Roberto Mancini, Barry might beg to differ. This feels personal.

A fortnight ago, Barry used the words "hurt" and "rejected" to describe his treatment by Pellegrini. The 33-year-old claimed he was told he wasn't good enough. He recalled a training session where he thought he had excelled, only for Pellegrini to tell him he still wasn't required at the Etihad Stadium.

When the season started, it was apparent why. City's first summer signing, arriving even before Pellegrini himself, was Fernandinho. The Brazilian is a defensive midfielder in name only. He plays like a younger Barry in overdrive. Or, perhaps, a combination of Barry and his former sidekick Nigel de Jong. Pellegrini dispensed with a holding midfielder in favour of a human dynamo. Although Fernandinho never stops running, the more static Barry keeps the ball moving. It made him ideal for Martinez's possession game. The Spaniard is no stranger to superlatives, but even by his standards, he has eulogised about Barry remarkably frequently. The short-term signing, he claims, is a one-off, and he said in December: "You always find it difficult to find a No. 6, that defensive midfielder who is tactically aware in the English game. Gareth has developed a continental approach in that role, and that's quite unique. If he was a foreigner, then maybe he would be a bit more glamorous for everyone to highlight."

His value lies not just in his rarity as a left-footer and a tactically astute Englishman. Martinez built a new midfield axis in the final hours of the September deadline day, recruiting Barry and James McCarthy while banking millions more. Their arrivals were financed by Marouane Fellaini's sale to Manchester United. It was one final service David Moyes did to his former club.

Suddenly Martinez's Everton took shape. Barry can drop into defence, sometimes splitting the central defenders and in effect fashioning a back three, while Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman bomb forward. Everton's attack-minded approach requires a midfielder who can stop counterattacks: Barry's total of 10 bookings shows he often resorts to cynical methods; the suspicion is Martinez tacitly condones them.

He ranks among the signings of the season, which is one of many reasons to expect his move to become permanent in the summer, and although Barry was only borrowed, he became Martinez's flagship recruit. The sense that this Spanish-speaking manager, unlike Pellegrini, truly trusted Barry was reinforced when, short of first-team football, he was parachuted in for his debut against Chelsea and delivered a man-of-the-match performance and Everton recorded their first league win under Martinez.

Chelsea have to figure, too, in any analysis of whether Pellegrini was right to exile Barry. The rationale, the Evertonian said he was told, was that Jack Rodwell, a decade his junior, was preferred, with Javi Garcia's presence in the squad seemingly non-negotiable and Fernandinho and Yaya Toure as first choices.

Yet when the Brazilian was a late withdrawal from the City side to face Chelsea in February, Garcia and, predictably, Rodwell were injured, too. Martin Demichelis was a makeshift, inadequate presence in the middle of the park in a game when Chelsea's prowess on the break meant a defensive midfielder was required.

Rodwell has gone almost eight months without a league start. His season is a write-off. Garcia's has improved after a poor start, but the evidence suggests City are substantially weaker whenever either Toure or Fernandinho is absent.

The all-action duo are virtually ever-present. Yet of the 11 league games City have failed to win, six came when one was missing and a seventh, at Liverpool, when Toure limped off in the 19th minute. Pellegrini has lacked strength in depth in the centre of midfield, as his January interest in Porto's Fernando indicates.

Meanwhile, Barry has been one of the Premier League's most consistently impressive performers in his position (with the odd exception of Saturday's error-prone display at Southampton, mirroring a similar performance at St. Mary's for City last season). It all suggests Pellegrini was overly hasty in writing him off.

Perhaps he feared a man who has made 507 of his 528 league appearances as a starter would have struggled to adjust to the role of a squad player. More pertinently, perhaps, the Chilean had too little faith in an English player, a recurring theme. There is no doubt that Barry isn't a natural fit for Pellegrini's brand of attacking football, where space is allowed both in front of and behind the back four. He isn't equipped to be a like-for-like deputy for Fernandinho. Then again, who is?

As it is, with City's understudies underachieving, their loss has been Everton's gain. At least, from Pellegrini's perspective, Barry cannot prove him wrong on Saturday. Because City's outcast has been outstanding for Everton.

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