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Ronald Koeman on track to fulfil Ross Barkley's immense potential at Everton

A comeback win at West Brom and comfortable victory against Yeovil in the League Cup has Everton well set for the visit of Stoke City on Saturday as the Blues chase a first home league success under new manager Ronald Koeman.

The home side are up against a visiting team that saw the best and worst of Everton in the previous campaign. In a fashion typical of Roberto Martinez's tenure, a disjointed mess ended in 4-3 home defeat, while a thoroughly dominant away showing resulted in a 3-0 win that threatened to reach double figures.

Koeman will want to eradicate such inconsistency as the players adapt to his methods and improve upon an encouraging start. One player still searching for such improvement is Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian forward is short of fitness and is looking to end a 10-game goal drought in the league. However, Koeman's main goal threat did bag three of the six goals Everton scored against Saturday's opponents last season.

In contrast to Lukaku, teammate Ross Barkley is up to speed and already attracting specific praise from his manager. These opening games show Barkley working harder than ever without the ball and registering two goals and an assist with it. Defensive aspects were never a strong point for Barkley, a player at home in the final third of the pitch, but Koeman wants his team to defend from the front and that is something Barkley is embracing thus far, showing a willingness to close down and track back, particularly when losing possession.

Perhaps this promising start prompted Koeman to hand Barkley the captain's armband against Yeovil in midweek. Such a gesture highlights the midfielder's importance within this new-look setup. Whether Barkley has genuine leadership qualities is open to debate, but it was a clever ploy from Koeman. A disappointing summer spent warming the England bench at Euro 2016 has clearly not influenced how those on Merseyside view one of their most prized assets.

The captaincy is an honour for any footballer, but it is extra special for one who grew up an Everton fan and has been at the club since the age of 11. Local-born players tend to attract more attention than their teammates and this brings added pressure -- scrutiny toward their performances is usually severe -- but Koeman believes Barkley can now handle such responsibility.

Koeman has already both challenged and praised Barkley this season, commenting on his improved work rate but also touching on the need for cleverness in his game. The latter was evident in the free kick scored in midweek, when Barkley spotted the Yeovil goalkeeper straying too far off his line and beat him at his near post.

Everton midfielder Ross Barkley
Everton midfielder Ross Barkley already has two goals and one assist to his name this season.

Of the three managers to oversee Barkley's Everton career to this point, Koeman may just have the right approach. This is where Koeman's no-nonsense approach is most beneficial: Barkley will earn praise when deserved, the same goes for criticism.

David Moyes handed Barkley his debut at 17, but his naturally cautious nature went against the unpredictability this midfield prospect offered. The eager youngster delivered a man-of-the-match display but was unable to prevent Queens Park Rangers snatching three points.

However, a mistake and subsequent penalty concession at Blackburn the following week saw Barkley quickly jettisoned from the first-team picture and his immediate future comprised of loan spells at lower league clubs.

If Moyes appeared to take a heavy-handed line with Barkley, his successor Martinez signalled the other extreme. Constant over-praising saw Barkley hyped to almost absurd levels. As Everton lost their way during Martinez's last two seasons, the crowd lost patience with a highly-rated midfielder unable to match the expectations created by an overenthusiastic manager. Confidence had visibly drained from Barkley's game as Everton plummeted from fifth in Martinez's first season to 11th the season after.

Barkley improved last season as Everton started well, but his form tailed off as both player and team finished on a whimper and a series of dull performances, although Barkley does appear a much stronger player for successive campaigns severely testing his character and self-belief.

The task for Koeman is helping Barkley take his game to the next level. Decision-making persists as the main criticism. Knowing when to dribble and when to offload the ball is still the obvious area in which Barkley must improve. While last season's league tally of eight goals and eight assists marked career-best returns in each category, the goals dried up in November, with the exception of two penalties in a February win against Newcastle, and there were no assists beyond Dec. 28.

At 22, now is the time to realise this undoubted potential and deliver over the course of a 38-game season. Supporters regularly call for their No. 8 to dominate games, such as the one Everton face this weekend, in the manner the very best attacking midfielders can. This is the next step, the natural progression Barkley has to make as he continues to develop under Koeman's watchful gaze.

Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.


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